Open MRI

If you recently visited your doctor, and the medical issue you presented with requires imaging, you might have been told to schedule an MRI. Although you may have heard of this particular diagnostic procedure, you might not be entirely sure what it entails.


You’re not alone!

MRI imaging is just one of dozens of diagnostic tests — a category inclusive of things like ultrasounds and X-rays (which might be more familiar to you). With an MRI, there are basically two options – closed MRI and open MRI.

But which is better? Let’s take a closer look at an MRI’s capabilities and which option (closed vs. open) is best for your medical situation.

History of MRI

An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses magnets to create images of the body’s soft tissues, but it does so from three different planes (axial, sagittal and coronal) as compared to the single plane of older technologies…and it doesn’t involve radiation!

MRI magnets cause atoms in the body to spin, and radio signals detect the changes that are produced. The information is then processed by a computer that compiles the data into images.

When MRI technology first hit the market, physicians questioned whether they actually needed another testing option, but the clear images that the (new) technology produced (especially in areas previously difficult to assess – like the brain, knee, etc.) were so advanced that the MRI became an instant hit.

The technology (originally known as nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR) was first introduced in the late 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the imaging technology was used for medical applications (and renamed MRI).

What is Closed MRI?

It’s important to know the difference between the two main types of MRI machines (closed and open) because each offers a very different experience.

Closed MRI machines are aptly named; their tunnel-like structure is easily identifiable.

In a traditional closed MRI, the patient is moved into the cylindrical space while laying on their back. Magnetic fields and radio waves then work to create detailed images of specific areas on the body. Scans can take anywhere between 15 minutes to over an hour, depending on the situation.

The images captured by a closed MRI are extremely high-quality and can be used to diagnose numerous medical issues.

Drawbacks of Closed MRIs

The downsides associated with the closed MRI are directly related to the comfort level the technology affords patients.

1. Not good for individuals who may be claustrophobic.

Although the width of the closed MRI’s cylinder has increased significantly over the years, the space itself is still fairly tight. It is not uncommon for patients to mention the closeness of the top of the tunnel to their face during testing.

In some cases, physicians administer a form of sedation to calm patients who may be claustrophobic or anxious in order to keep them lying still for the required length of time.

2. Size limitations for some patients.

As mentioned above, even though the size of the “tunnel” has increased since the technology was first introduced, closed MRI remains relatively small.

Patients who are larger in size or are overweight may not fit. Wide-bore MRIs were introduced to increase the dimension of the machine, but they are still considered closed in the traditional sense.

3. Loudness may induce anxiety.

During a closed scan, patients are typically given earplugs or headphones because the machine can be very loud and disorienting.

In situations where the patient is already anxious, the loudness and potential banging of the machine may increase anxiety and inability to lie still.

What is Open MRI

While still using magnets to produce medical images, open MRIs are exactly as they sound — completely open on all sides as opposed to the closed, capsule-like space of its predecessor.

They offer a clear line of sight in every direction and are a great option for patients of all kinds – including those who would previously be unable to use a closed MRI (people who have a larger body mass, anxiety or claustrophobia or small children who are unable to stay still).

Advantages of Open MRI

1. Open MRI tends to cost less.

This particular technology requires less maintenance than that of a closed MRI. Often, this reduction in cost is passed on to the patients and can be seen when doing a cost comparison of the two options.

2. Open configuration is more comfortable.

The true openness of the open MRI is comforting to all patients, not just individuals who are uncomfortable with tight spaces. The ability to still see in every direction gives a feeling of control and familiarity.

Open MRI is a fantastic option for people dealing with anxiety or for small children who want to be near a parent or guardian. The increased comfort of this newer technology allows people to more easily remain still in order to obtain the quality of the picture needed for diagnosis.

3. Can accommodate additional comfort measures.

The increased space within the open MRI allows for the use of comfort items. Patients will often take a blanket or pillow along with them for the testing procedure, and staff can typically provide pillows or wedges to aid in comfort.

Many facilities also allow patients to bring in preferred music or listen to comforting sounds (like ocean waves) during testing.

4. Family members can be present during the exam.

A big win for children in need of an MRI, the open air option allows parents or guardians to be present during the exam. This is especially helpful when completing an exam on an infant because a parent can remain alongside, providing a familiar voice and touch.

This is also helpful for adults suffering from cognitive impairment (like dementia) and can lessen the fear and anxiety of being alone in an unfamiliar space.

5. Easy to schedule and quick to complete.

Since there are fewer issues that result in delay or cancellation of the exam, open air MRIs are often easier to get scheduled. Often, the testing can be completed the same or next day of your call.

On average, open MRIs take 30-40 minutes to complete.

Disadvantages of Open MRI

Due to the shape of the open MRI, occasionally the machine is unable to obtain good images of certain areas of the body.

Open MRI machines use magnets that may not be as strong as the ones used in a closed system, resulting in an image that may be of a lower quality. In instances where the body part in need of scanning is small, a physician may direct patients toward the closed MRI option.


Even with a relatively weaker magnetic field, open MRIs are able to accurately scan most areas of the body and meet the needs of a variety of patients. As technology continues to advance, newer open MRI scanners feature higher strength magnetic fields and offer even higher quality images than before.

What’s more, with an open MRI, physicians gain clear insight on joint issues and concerns, which they weren’t previously able to do with closed MRI systems.

Be sure to keep several considerations in mind when scheduling: patient comfort, body area being scanned, ease (timeframe) of scheduling and cost.

Wondering if you qualify for an open MRI as opposed to a closed MRI scan? Contact Edgewood’s radiology experts to discuss your medical situation and get scheduled.