MRI Vs. X-Ray: What Type of Imaging Do I Need?

Published: 07:30 am, Fri May 31, 2024

How We Recommend Preparing For Joint Replacement Surgery

When you're in pain, it's frustrating not to have a clear image of what's going on and how the pain can be fixed. For more serious orthopedic injuries, you'll likely need to get some sort of image or scan to understand better what treatment plan is best moving forward.

This post outlines the differences between an MRI and an X-ray so you can feel more prepared for what to expect before your orthopedic appointment.

When You Should Receive an X-Ray

Sustaining an injury during training or competition can be a frustrating setback. While the throbbing pain might have you immediately considering an X-ray, understanding when this imaging technique is most beneficial is crucial.

X-rays use a safe, low-dose radiation beam to create detailed images of your bones. This technology is excellent at detecting disruptions in the skeletal system, making it a valuable tool for diagnosing several common sports injuries like:


A suspected fracture, whether from a direct impact or repetitive stress, is an ideal situation for an X-ray.

The image can confirm the presence and type of fracture, allowing your doctor to develop a treatment plan for a swift and successful recovery.


X-rays provide a clear view of bone alignment, revealing dislocations where bones have shifted out of their normal position.

This information is important for prompt medical intervention to ensure proper realignment of the bones and to prevent future complications.


If you're experiencing persistent joint pain, X-rays can be instrumental in diagnosing arthritis. By visualizing the space between bones, an X-ray can detect this condition.

Early detection of arthritisallows you to get evidence-based treatment strategies to manage pain, improve joint function, and potentially slow the disease's progression, keeping you active for longer.

While X-rays offer a fast and cost-effective approach compared to other imaging techniques, it's important to understand their limitations. Soft tissue injuries like muscle tears or ligament sprains are not detectable with X-rays.

However, an X-ray might be the first diagnostic step even when a soft tissue injury is suspected. A clear X-ray can definitively rule out a fracture, ensuring you receive the most appropriate treatment without unnecessary recovery time focused on a non-existent bone issue.

an orthopedic specialists looking at an x-ray scan on a tablet.

What Exactly Is an MRI?

Unlike X-rays, MRI or magnetic resonance imaging uses magnetic fields rather than radiation. Because of how it's produced, an MRI usually takes 30 minutes compared to an X-ray, which is much faster.

An MRI uses magnetic fields and the water in your tissues to align atoms in your body and, in turn, produces high-resolution images of your organs. These images can be from multiple angles to get a full picture of what's going on and what's causing your pain.

As we'll go into more detail below, MRIs in orthopedics are used for examining joints, soft tissues, ligaments, and tendons.

Benefits of Getting an MRI

A significant benefit of getting an MRI vs an X-ray is that MRIs can differentiate between fat, water, and muscle tissue. An MRI can sometimes provide a clearer idea of what an orthopedic specialist must do to get you back to feeling your best.

"We are so pleased to finally offer MRI services directly at our LOG Granite Run office. It has simplified the scheduling process for patients and allows us to get the necessary imaging much more quickly. This gives us the information to proceed with the appropriate treatment plan." - Corey R Troxell, DO, MBA.

an example of an MRI scan

Common Injuries That Require an MRI

Knowing the difference between x-rays vs MRIs will help you have a better understanding of what type of imaging is best for your injury. At Lancaster Orthopedic Group, we use MRIs to examine injuriesto the musculoskeletal system.

This includes the following

  • Tendon and ligament injuries
  • Progression of arthritis
  • Presence of tumors or infections
  • Spine degeneration and herniated discs

Spine Injuries

Spinal disc bulges are a common reason for an MRI of your back. The lumbar area, or your lower back, is the routine spot for a bulging disc. When you have a bulging disc you may also feel pain in your hips, legs, and feet. In fact, you may not feel any symptoms in your lower back.

Degenerative disc disease is another orthopedic injury requiring an MRI of your back. If the pain is in your lower back, it's a lumbar degenerative disease. If the pain is in the upper or middle of your back, it is known as a thoracic degenerative disease.

In both cases, the degeneration can be caused by a variety of factors including

  • Aging and arthritis
  • Smoking habits
  • Intense lifting or gymnastics
  • Autoimmune diseases

Discs and tissue around your spine can only be seen on an MRI machine. X-rays are only able to see your spine, or if you have injured vertebrae.

Joint Injuries

Your knee is the biggest joint in your body and injuries to this area may involve getting an MRI appointment. MRI for your knees can help determine whether or not you'll need surgery for your injury.

Sports injuries like ACL and rotator cuff tears, arthritis, and infections like osteomyelitis are all orthopedic problems that can be further evaluated with an MRI. This is because an MRI can better examine ligaments and tissues surrounding your knee.

Tumors on Your Bone or Muscle Tissue

MRI exams are also used to view tumors and detect cancer within your body. Sometimes, pain in your body may seem like it's one thing but without proper imaging and evaluation, you might not have a solid understanding of what's happening.

MRI Scans Vs. X-rays Costs

MRI scans can cost a significant amount, ranging from $1,200 to $4,000. The final price depends on how long the procedure takes and the facility performing it (hospitals typically charge more than radiology centers).

X-rays are generally much cheaper than MRIs. The average cost falls between $100 and $1,000, with some specialized X-rays reaching $20,000 or even higher. X-rays are more affordable because the technology is widely available and easier to access than other imaging tests.

Getting an MRI at Lancaster Orthopedic Group

Before your MRI at Lancaster Orthopedic Group, you should expect a phone call from our office asking a list of medical questions. It's important to answer these questions accurately so we can ensure your safety during the MRI.

On your appointment day, we will review these safety questions again. Wear something comfortable and minimal jewelry, as you will be asked to dress in a gown and remove all the jewelry.

At Lancaster Orthopedic Group, our modernized MRI machine has the ability to expedite your imaging so our specialists can review and start organizing your personalized treatment plan.

At Lancaster Orthopedic Group, we want you to be as prepared as possible. That's why we let you know the cost of your MRI appointment before you come to the office. You can also pay ahead of time with no hidden costs, so there are no surprises.

An MRI appointment will give you a clearer understanding of where your pain is coming from. Call us to schedule an appointment with one of our orthopedic specialists today!

Gain a clearer understanding of where your pain is coming from with an MRI appointment. Call our Granite Run office at 717-560-4200 to schedule your appointment with one of our orthopedic specialists.

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