Purpose, Preparation, Risks, and Results

Purpose, Preparation, Risks, and Results


Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) is a non-invasive imaging test that uses a magnetic field, radio waves, and a computer to produce pictures of the inside of your abdomen. It helps identify diseases affecting the pancreas, liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, or pancreatic ducts. It can also help detect the presence of stones, tumors, and surgical complications. 

MRCP is a special type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) healthcare providers often recommend when you experience sudden and unexplained abdominal pain. It is generally safe as long as you follow the instructions of the imaging center staff.

The MRCP test is a specialized test which healthcare providers use to:

  • Examine the liver, gallbladder, pancreas, bile ducts, and pancreatic ducts
  • Check for the presence of tumors, inflammation, infection, or stones in any of the above organ systems
  • Assess the underlying cause of pancreatitis (inflamed pancreas)
  • Diagnose unexplained abdominal pain

MRCP is often preferred over the more invasive endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) because it is non-invasive. ERCP also determines problems with bile or pancreatic ducts, but for that test, a tubed device with a light on the end (endoscope) needs to be inserted down your throat.

A traditional MRI scanner consists of a large cylinder-shaped tube surrounded by a circular magnet. MRCP includes two new types of MRI scanners.

One is the short-bore system. In this system, the part of the body being scanned must remain within the magnet, while the rest of the body can be outside the magnet.

The other type of MRI scanner MRCP might use is the open-bore system. For this, the sides are open, and the magnets are above and below you. These are especially helpful for people with claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces).

The MRCP is performed by a radiologist (a doctor specializing in diagnosing and treating health conditions based on imaging test results) at a clinic or the radiology department of a hospital. You can ask your healthcare provider about specific instructions you may need to follow or what you can expect. But generally, here’s what you should know about MRCP:

Before the Test

Before undergoing the MRCP test, your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history to learn if you have any allergies or any metal implants in your body. They often recommend you not eat or drink anything a few hours before the test to help reduce fluid secretions in the stomach. This will help to take clearer pictures.

Before undergoing the procedure, you need to remove your jewelry, watches, hair clips, eyeglasses, piercings, and other metallic objects. If you don’t, the objects can cause you or others around you harm. Metal can interact with the magnetic field of the MRI unit, potentially interfering with the images, causing burns to your body, or becoming projectiles within the room.

For children and people with claustrophobia, your healthcare provider may recommend a mild sedative before the test.

During the Test

You need to change into a hospital gown for the test. You will then lie down on a moveable table for the test. They may use straps or bolsters to help you remain still so that you stay in the same position during the test. They will then put devices containing coils to send and receive radio waves around the area of your body that need to be examined.

The technician may provide you with headphones or earplugs to reduce the noise made by the MRI scanner. In some cases, your technician or radiologist may use a contrast material that they insert through an intravenous line into a vein in your arm. The technician then leaves the room and runs the MRI scans from outside the room. You may be able to talk to the technician via an intercom regarding any concerns.

An MRCP scan takes about 10-15 minutes to run. However, it is often accompanied by a standard abdominal MRI, which takes about another 30 minutes.

After the Test

You can resume your daily activities and normal diet routine immediately after the test. You may need some more recovery time if you received sedation before the test. Some people may experience side effects such as nausea, headache, or allergic symptoms from the contrast material. In such cases, you should immediately let the radiologist know.

The MRCP test is relatively safe and rarely leads to any severe side effects. A few side effects associated with the test may include:

  • Drowsiness, nausea, and headache if too much sedation is administered (though those administering it are highly trained in what they do, so this should be uncommon)
  • Development of an allergic reaction to contrast agents
  • Small amounts of contrast agents remaining in the body after multiple MRI exams 

MRI is typically considered safe for people who are pregnant or lactating. Still, they should talk to their healthcare provider to confirm if the benefits of MRCP outweigh any potential risks.

You may want to talk to your healthcare provider to understand how to prepare for the MRCP test. A few things to keep in mind are:

  • Location: The MRCP test will likely take place at a radiology clinic or a radiology department of a hospital. A technician or radiologist performs the scans after explaining the test details to you.
  • Attire: You need to change into a hospital gown for the test. You cannot wear jewelry, watches, eyeglasses, or hair clips or carry any metallic device during the test. It will probably be easiest if you wear easy-to-remove clothes and no accessories.
  • Food and drink: You may need to fast for a few hours before the test. Talk to your radiologist to determine how long you need to fast.
  • Medications: You need to inform your radiologist about the medications you are taking. Depending on the medications, they may recommend continuing or stopping them.
  • Items to bring: You may want to bring instructions from your healthcare provider, an identification document, and your insurance card on the day of the test. If you have metallic implants, bring information (e.g., the card) regarding the specific type of implant.
  • Emotional support: You can ask your radiologist if you can bring anyone with you for emotional support. You may consider bringing someone, especially if MRI exams make you uncomfortable.
  • Cost and insurance: If you have insurance, talk to your company to determine whether they will cover the cost of the test. Confirm with them and the testing location whether payment is expected at the time of the visit.

The time taken to get the results varies depending on the facilities. The radiologist will interpret the results and analyze the images. They will then send the signed copy of the report to your healthcare provider, who will share the results with you. Depending on your results, your healthcare provider may recommend treatments or further tests.

Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) is a noninvasive imaging test that helps detect conditions affecting the pancreas, liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, or pancreatic ducts. It can also help detect tumors, stones, and other problems that may lead to unexplained abdominal pain. The test takes place at a radiology clinic or hospital radiology department.

An MRCP is a type of MRI that uses magnetic fields and radiofrequency pulses to produce images of the inside of your body and then sends those images to a computer. A radiologist or technician performs the test. They’ll then send the test results directly to your healthcare provider, who may recommend treatment approaches or further tests based on the results.

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