Tattoos and an MRI scan - is there anything to worry about?

Some of us will be unfortunate enough to need an MRI at some point in our lives. We say unfortunate because if you need an MRI, that means something has gone very wrong somewhere.

If you do need one and have a tattoo, you may have heard some rumours about how the 2 things can interact with one another. But are these just rumours or is there a real possibility that an MRI can affect a tattoo?

What’s an MRI?

MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and it’s the magnetic part that we’re worried about.

The force is so strong that even the “weakest” machine used is 10,000 times the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field. Small metal objects like paper clips or keys can become deadly projectiles when pulled through the air.

So what’s this have to do with tattoos? Well, back in the day, tattoo ink was completely unregulated, and could contain pretty much anything - even metal.

I have metal in my tattoo?!

No, you don’t. Well, probably not.

Because tattoo ink was unregulated (and still is to a high degree), any tattoos over, say 25 years old may contain some metallic fragments, or if you got your tattoo in some dodgy studio in Thailand you might be a little bit worried.

Some MRI patients who have had tattoos that dated back far enough have reported pain during MRI scans, ranging from slight to severe.

There are a few reasons this could be. One theory is that the magnetic force pulls on the metallic fragments so violently that it causes a burning sensation in the location of the tattoo, while another is that the pain is caused by built up friction between the particles.

Even if there is no pain at all, these fragments can cause distortions (called artifacts) in the results, rendering them useless.

How do I know if my tattoo has metal in it?

Honestly, you can't. But if you got your ink within the past 20 years of from a reputable studio, you can be pretty sure it's safe.

Even if you got a tattoo over 25 years ago, it doesn’t mean the ink contains metal. And even if it did, that doesn't always mean you'll have a problem with an MRI. There’s always alternatives to an MRI scan, people with pacemakers and metal implants also can’t use them, so chat to your doctor if you’re worried.

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