Scans (adults)

Scans provide a detailed three-dimensional image of the brain by taking multiple pictures of the inside of your head. They allow doctors to see whether a tumour is present, and its size and position.

Scans are used during diagnosis, as well as for monitoring during and after treatment.

The two scans that are most commonly used are:

CT scans

CT stands for Computerised Tomography. You may also sometimes hear doctors referring to CT scans as CAT scans - these are the same thing.

They use x-rays to build up a three-dimensional image of the inside of your head by taking several pictures from various angles.

MRI scans

Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, uses magnetic fields, rather than x-rays to build up a three-dimensional image of your brain.

What is the difference between an MRI and a CT scan?

MRI scans and CT scans are similar - both build up detailed images of the brain. However, whilst CT scans use a small amount of radiation to do this, MRI scans use magnetic fields.

Although radiation is used for CT scans, it is kept at a very low dose. They are used only when they are considered necessary, with the benefits outweighing the risks.

CT scans of the head take around 5-10 minutes, although more time will be spent beforehand to get you into the correct position ready for the scan. The newest CT scanners take about 1 minute to scan the whole brain.

MRI scans can typically take between 15 and 90 minutes.

Scan procedure

The procedure for both CT and MRI scans is very similar.

Before the scan

You are likely to be given a 'contrast medium' (via an injection or drink) that enables a clearer image to be given from the scan.

This may make you feel warm all over. Some people have reported feeling cold after having the contrast medium.

If you are having an MRI scan, you will be asked if you have a pacemaker, any implants, such as a programmable shunt or skull section, or if you are likely to have any metal in your body due to working in the steel or metal industries. If you have, then an MRI may not be suitable for you as it uses magnetic fields to take images. Your radiographer will be able to tell you more.

Fillings in your teeth and braces are fine, but tell your radiographer about them.

You will need to remove any metal, such as jewellery, hair clips, belts with buckles, if you are having an MRI.

During the scan

  • You will lie, usually on your back, on the flat bed that is part of the scanner
    • the CT scanner is shaped like a doughnut or ring, with a round hole in the middle – this is where your head will go
    • the MRI scanner is more cylindrical and your whole body will lie within it
  • During the scan, you need to lie very still. Staff will leave the room, but will be nearby. They can see and hear you
  • You can breathe normally during the scan
  • The scan isn't painful, but during the scan, you will hear noises from the scanner when it is taking pictures
    • for a CT scan, this will be a soft humming and clicks
    • for an MRI scan, this will be very loud banging and clanging noises

    You will probably be given headphones. You can usually take music to play through the headphones

  • If you tend to get claustrophobic, it is a good idea to let staff know before the day of your scan

After the scan

  • After the scan, you will usually be allowed to go straight home
  • (If you have needed a sedative to calm you, the hospital staff will first check that it is safe for you to do so. You should arrange for a friend or relative to accompany you and to take you home afterwards.)

  • You should be given a time frame for receiving your test results

What other types of scan might I have?

There are some other types of scan that may be used to diagnose a brain tumour, or to find out more about a diagnosed tumour. These include:

  • PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans
  • SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computerised Tomography) scans
  • fMRI (functional MRI scan)
  • Specialised MRI scans

Information and support

Whether you've been diagnosed with a brain tumour, or it's a family member or friend, we are here to help. We offer a wide range of inclusive and accessible information and services for everyone affected by a brain tumour, whether it's low or high grade, adult or child.

Treating brain tumours

Read about different treatment options that may be available to you. Including neurosurgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Navigating the system

Find out about the NHS, social services and other agencies you may come across after being diagnosed.

Get Support

If you need advice or just someone to talk to find out about our phone support lines, local and online support groups.

Page last reviewed: 05/2014
Next review due: currently under review

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