Before the MRI

By Janae Leach

Borden, William Cline. The Use of the Röntgen Ray by the Medical Department of the United States Army in the War with Spain, 1898. Washington: n.p., 1900. Print.

“:: On This Page.” N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a medical test used to produce images of organs, soft tissues, bone and all other internal body structures. MRI utilizes a powerful magnetic field, some radio frequency pulses, and a computer to perform its specific function. These detailed images allow physicians to evaluate various parts of the body and diagnose the presence of certain diseases. The images may be viewed on a computer screen, transmitted electronically, or copied to a CD. MRIs are a state-of-the-art medical technology that has revolutionized patient health-care and patient diagnosis. Doctors have never been more accurate in deciphering illnesses by using non-invasive technology. Its importance has rarely been questioned and it has become one of the most popular and widely used medical technologies in our culture today.

Before the MRI, there were many forms of imaging techniques doctors used to diagnose illnesses. CT scans, PET scans, and X-rays were the primary source of internal body imaging designed for patients. However, one of the earliest records of anatomy imaging took place during the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Röntgen Ray, invented by Wilhelm Röntgen, helped detect bullets embedded in wounded American soldiers. The main advantage of the Röntgen Ray was “in permanent military hospitals in dry climates, the static apparatus will give a constantly available and steady source of Röntgen radiation” (Borden 27). In decent weather conditions, the Röntgen Ray would produce quality, consistent images of bones and the location of the bullet inside the body. This allowed surgeons to be more precise in their work towards removing the bullet from the body. The Röntgen Ray played an extremely important role in reducing the number of deaths by bullet in the Spanish-American War. However, it was certainly not a perfect technology. There were several skepticisms of the machine. Even though it was successful in locating bullets, physicians argued that “the static machine is bulky and heavy, glass enters largely into its constructions, and consequently, it cannot be ordinarily be as easily or safely transported” (Borden 27) to the different hospitals made for military purposes. Some patients also experienced what was called a Röntgen Ray Burn. This was produced by prolonged exposure to the tubes of the machine if they were not working properly. The next step up in medical imaging did not really take place until the 1970s.

By the 1930s, however, tomography was beginning to be developed. This permitted the visualization of sections through the human body. In the 1960s, several researchers had worked on cross-sectional imaging, developing the computed tomography (CT). This device “relied on the reconstruction of image data by computer, the data being acquired from multiple X-ray transmissions through the object under investigation” (Perry). The first PET scanners had a small number of radiation sensors to construct the image, and scientists were only able to produce one, thick slice at a time. Therefore, the images obtained with the PET had a low quality and definition. It was basically impossible to get the finer details of the localization of function in the brain, so their clinical usefulness was limited compared to the MRI. MRIs are different from the basic positron emission tomography scan and computerized tomography scan because they do not use ionizing radiation. Although MRIs take a considerable amount of time longer for the images to finally appear, the scans are able to give far more detail and information. Physicians are even able to analyze the blood flow in the human body through MRI. MRIs are also costlier and raise various uncertainties about its economics and whether or not it is actually being used for patient care.


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