Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Head and Neck

Head and neck MRI uses a strong magnetic field combined with radiofrequency waves to create highly detailed, cross-sectional images of internal structures in the head and neck area; these scans are examined for abnormalities. For certain studies, an MRI contrast dye such as gadolinium may be injected to provide better definition of soft tissues and blood vessels and thus enhance the images. Head and neck MRI is used to detect abnormalities outside of the skull.

Purpose of the Head and Neck MRI

  • To detect inflammation, tumors and other masses, and other abnormalities in the head and neck region, including the mouth, tongue, salivary glands, throat (pharynx), sinuses, nasal cavities, vocal cords (larynx), and ear
  • To investigate the cause of hearing loss and detect soft tissue damage in the inner ear
  • To determine the extent of head or neck tumors before treatment for cancer, and to monitor the area for recurrence after cancer therapy
  • To help diagnose developmental anomalies of the brain; vascular anomalies of the head (e.g., aneurysm); eye, inner ear and pituitary gland disorders and diseases; stroke; chronic nervous system disorders, such as multiple sclerosis; and headaches

Who Performs Head and Neck MRI

Special Concerns about Head and Neck MRI

  • People who experience claustrophobia may find it difficult to undergo an MRI, which takes place in a narrow, tunnel-like structure. In some cases, an open MRI—a larger unit that is open on several sides—may be used as an alternative.
  • Because the MRI generates a strong magnetic field, it cannot be performed on people who have certain types of internally placed metallic devices, including pacemakers, inner ear implants, or intracranial aneurysm clips.
  • The test should not be done in pregnant women because the long-term effects of MRI on the fetus are unknown.

Before the Head and Neck MRI

  • Tell your doctor if you suffer from claustrophobia. He or she may administer a sedative to help you tolerate the procedure.
  • Tell your doctor if you have any serious health concerns or if you recently had surgery. Certain conditions, including kidney disease may prevent you from being given contrast material. If you have a history of kidney disease, a blood test may be necessary to determine if your kidneys are functioning properly.
  • Tell your doctor if you have a pacemaker, a cochlear (ear) implant, a clip used on brain aneurysms or another implanted medical or electronic device, such as an artificial heart valve, an implanted drug infusion port, an artificial limb or metallic joint prosthesis, an implanted nerve stimulators or metal pins, screws, plates, stents or surgical staples.
  • Tell your doctor if you are pregnant or may be pregnant.
  • Remove any magnetic cards or metallic objects, including watches, hair clips, belts, credit cards, and jewelry.

What You Experience during Head and Neck MRI

  • You will lie down on a narrow padded bed.
  • Your head and neck are advanced into the large, enclosed cylinder containing the MRI magnets.
  • You must remain still throughout the procedure because any motion can distort the scan. Your head will likely be placed in a cradle to restrict movement.
  • You may receive an injection of contrast dye before or during the procedure.
  • There is a microphone inside the imaging machine, and you may talk to the technician performing the scan at any time during the procedure.
  • You will hear loud thumping sounds as the scanning is performed. To block out the noise, you can request earplugs or listen to music on earphones.
  • The procedure lasts about 15 minutes but can take longer if a contrast dye is used.

Risks and Complications of Head and Neck MRI

  • MRI does not involve exposure to ionizing radiation and is not associated with any risks or complications.

After the Head and Neck MRI

  • Most patients can go home right after the scan and resume their usual activities.
  • Sedated patients may be monitored for a short period until the effects of the sedative have worn off.
  • If a contrast dye was used, blood may collect and clot under the skin (hematoma) at the injection site; this is harmless and will resolve on its own. For a large hematoma that causes swelling and discomfort, apply ice initially; after 24 hours, use warm, moist compresses to help dissolve the clotted blood.

Results of Head and Neck MRI

  • The MRI scans are displayed on a video monitor and then recorded on film. The doctor will examine the images for evidence of any abnormality.
  • If a definitive diagnosis can be made based on the images, appropriate treatment will be initiated, depending on the specific problem.
  • In some cases, additional tests, such as fine needle aspiration of a head or neck mass, laryngoscopy, or thyroid ultrasound, may be needed to establish a diagnosis and determine the extent of the problem.


The Johns Hopkins Consumer Guide to Medical Tests

Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D., Medical Editor

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 13 Jan 2012

Last Modified: 19 Mar 2015