(Updated 2022) What is an MRI? Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a technique that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the organs and tissues within your body.
Most MRI machines are large, tube-shaped magnets. When you lie inside an MRI machine, the magnetic field temporarily aligns the water molecules in your body. Radio waves cause these aligned particles to produce very faint signals, which are used to create cross-sectional MRI images — like slices in a loaf of bread.
The MRI machine can also be used to produce 3-D images that may be viewed from many different angles. (Source: MayoClinic)
Examples of uses: MRI can be used to view, monitor, or diagnose:
- spine, joint or muscle problems
- abdominal tumors and disorders
- brain tumors and abnormalities
- breast cancer
- heart or blood vessel problems
What should you ask ahead of time? What types of MRI are there?
Although MRIs are incredibly helpful and often necessary for ruling out differentials and confirming a diagnosis, they are also one of several frequently overused medical tests, as cited by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation’s Choosing Wisely campaign.
This is why it is valuable to ask your doctor whether an MRI is necessary to confirm your diagnosis, what other testing options there may be, and what kind of MRI you will be having. Yes, there are different types of MRIs:
The most common is referred to as a regular MRI. Sometimes there’s a need for an MRI with contrast (often using a substance called gadolinium), which is commonly used to view the body in more detail. There is also an MR angiogram (designed to see blood vessels).
An open MRI means you will not be placed in a tunnel or tube. It is open on all 4 sides, allowing you to see around you. The spacious opening is designed for those patients who suffer from claustrophobia or anxiety.
(Doctors and patients will tell you that some of the best tricks to surviving an MRI are to ask for earplugs — it’s very loud — and to keep your eyes closed the entire time).
Note: We do not offer medical advice. This advice about billing is general at best; in every case you should check with a provider. See our terms of service.
What additional MRI fees are there?
There may also be a “reading fee” that comes with an MRI. What you are paying for is the physician or radiologist’s interpretation of the MRI, which can range from $100 to $500. Some doctors own their own MRI equipment and review scans with their patients at no additional cost. But if you’ve had your test conducted at a hospital or outpatient radiology facility it may be read by a radiologist, which often means there will be a fee. Some facilities, however, do not charge extra for a reading.
Ask in advance if there are additional charges.
How are the results of an MRI delivered or kept?
Once a radiologist has analyzed and interpreted the results of your MRI scan, they send the report to your doctor, often free of charge. This usually takes a day or two, though sometimes it can be read immediately in a computer. If you would like to obtain a copy of your MRI, the medical facility is obligated to provide one to you by federal law. Usually, they will send a DVD copy (although sometimes you are required to pick the copy up yourself), which may cost $20 to $30. If you would prefer a film copy, the pricing may be different.
To sum up, how much does an MRI cost?
Well, it depends. An MRI of the spine can cost $295, or upwards of $3,000. We have even heard $8,000, but that was for an MRI of the brain.
Different facilities (hospital, radiology center, doctor’s office) charge vastly different prices for MRIs. For example, the cash price of a lumbar spine MRI at a hospital in California can reach more than $3,000, while the cash price of the same test at an independent radiology facility can be as low as $400. For our sampling of cash or self-pay prices of lumbar spine MRIs in the San Francisco area, click here. For our sampling of cash or self-pay prices in the New York area, click here. For our sampling of cash or self-pay prices in Houston, click here. For our sampling of cash or self-pay prices of lumbar spine MRIs in the Los Angeles area, click here.
Using our search tool, and on these results lists, you can see that several providers will undercut the Medicare price, which is the closest thing in the market to a fixed or benchmark price.
You can also use our search tool for Medicare prices to find what the government pays.)
Some providers post prices online. At ImageCare Radiology in Denville, N.J., the self-pay price for an MRI without contrast is $650.
Martha Bebinger, a reporter at WBUR radio in Boston, talks about the cost of an MRI in a radio interview here. (She was charged nearly $8,000 for a brain MRI, but the insurance company paid $1,650 – this is the negotiated price, so called because it’s negotiated by the provider and the insurance company.)
So, how much? It depends. Always ask.
THE TAKEAWAY: QUESTIONS TO ASK
As we always say, know before you go. Questions to ask:
- Is this covered by insurance? (if applicable)
- How much will this cost? How much will this cost me?
- Do you have a sliding scale based on income?
- Is there a fee for reading the MRI? How much is it?
- Are there other fees or charges?
- What else do I need to know?
Here’s Part 1 of “How much does an MRI cost?”
Part 2: How to argue a bill.