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We are often asked the question: “What is the difference between getting a breast MRI scan versus a regular mammogram using a standard mammography machine?” This is a great question, the answer to which provides an opportunity to highlight the separate strengths of these two modalities.

Each machine has advantages and disadvantages that result in one type being more suitable for general screening (mammography) and the other more suitable for diagnosis and staging (MRI).


Mammography is the recommended method of screening and diagnosis for the majority of patients. Mammography is generally more reliable than MRI when detecting suspicious calcifications and remains the best modality for patients with ferrous metal implants that are unable to go through an MRI. Patients with a personal or family history of breast cancer or dense breasts could arguably benefit more from an MRI study but, with 3D tomography technology increasing its presence on the market, image quality and recognition of calcifications and/or lesions will likely improve for mammography.

Breast MRI

During a breast MRI procedure, unlike mammography, there is no risk of radiation exposure because MRI scanners use magnetic fields to create images. According to recent studies, one distinct advantage of MRI studies is their ability to better detect small breast lesions that are sometimes missed on a mammography machine. MRI scanners are also more effective in detecting breast cancer in patients with dense breasts and patients with breast implants.

One disadvantage of MRI studies is that they have been known to sometimes miss calcifications, which can eventually develop into tumors. Additionally, because of the magnetic field generated by an
MRI, patients with ferrous implants of any kind are disqualified from being screened on this equipment. Finally, MRI procedures require an expensive injection of contrast dye into the arm that helps create a clearer image but, unfortunately,
is not always covered by insurance

A Place for Everything

In most cases, a physician will elect to start a patient out with a regular mammogram screening. If suspicious or inconclusive results are found (along with a history), they may elect to order a more expensive breast MRI scan as well. Balancing what is best for the patient with cost management certainly factors into a physician’s decision, but the bottom line remains the same: doctors carefully leveraging the separate strengths of both breast MRI scans and traditional mammography to detect breast cancer earlier and save more lives.

Garth Immelman is a customer service representative for Block Imaging.