MRI's and Body Piercings
Help! I need to get an MRI, but I have a bunch of piercings- what do I do! This is such a common situation and concern. What do you do if you need to get medical imaging done. But you have piercings. Particularly fresh piercings that can’t safely be removed, or surface piercings like microdermals and surface bars? Well, let’s take a look. First of all, what is going on when you get an MRI? MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. We use strong magnetic fields and radio waves to generate images of organs inside the body. MRI’s are useful for diagnosing different issues, and imaging the body without exposing you to any radiation. MRIs are commonly prescribed, and most people end up getting at least one MRI in their lifetime.
Simply put, its a giant, strong magnet that’s looking at your body. Common sense says we shouldn’t put anything metal near the magnet because its going to get pulled! Ahh! Cue the mental image of earrings ripping from your body and flying around the room and- wait. What about people with braces? Or metal dental implants? Or metal plates after cranial surgery? Those people need MRI’s eventually too. How does that work?
Magnetism is a force broken down into a few categories, and every material on the earth has some degree of magnetism. Today we care about materials that are ferromagnetic. Ferromagnetic substances are substances that are magnetized even when there is no external magnetic field. It’s magnetic just by nature. Ferromagnetic materials move straight to magnets when placed near them with no external need for stimulation. In an MRI, ferromagnetic materials would cause an issue and adhere to the machine. These include iron, cobalt, and nickel. There are also paramagnetic substances. These substances can only ever become weakly magnetized, and only by an external magnetic field. Meaning- no magnetic field, no magnetic pull. Titanium falls into this category.
Over the past 30 years we’ve done a number of studies on different materials for MRI’s. The conclusion is anything nonferromagnatic is MRI safe. This means titanium, being paramagnetic, it totally safe for an MRI. Very occasionally titanium may obscure what is being imaged, but usually techs can account for that on the imaging and make necessary adjustments so the images turn out clear.
What does this all mean for your piercings? It means as long as you are wearing implant grade titanium, you are safe to get an MRI! The titanium used by the top jewelry companies is the same grade of titanium used for medical implants. Meaning it’s just as safe for you as getting an MRI with these implants done. I would verify with your piercer that you have actual implant grade titanium, but if you do you’ll be fine.
I have titanium, but they are still telling me to take my Jewelry out?
Yes, you will likely encounter this. Despite the fact implant grade titanium is proven MRI safe, there is still a bias against body piercings in the medical field. I’ve had doctors tell me “no, they don’t make Jewelry out of titanium, it’s not possible”. You will likely have to advocate for yourself and your piercings. A good good way to do this is to bring a copy of the mill certificate with you to your appointment. A mill certificate shows the exact alloy of the metal, and proves the jewelry you have is safe for an MRI. You can get these certificates from your piercer. Many studios also have a letter you can bring as well stating that your piercings need Jewelry left in and your Jewelry is safe. That being said, you may do all this and have every bit of proof that your jewelry is totally safe, and they still make make you take it out. It’s super unfortunate, but there is a large bias against piercings in the medical community, and there honestly isn’t much we can do about it. However, advocating for yourself and educating medical professionals is a great first step.
So what do I do if they make me take it out?
You can get non-metal retainers for the procedure! Glass and silicone are safe materials and not metallic, so they will usually accept them for your MRI. Your local reputable studio should have these in stock, and be able to assist you with swapping them in and out for your imaging. For piercings that can not be removed, like surface piercings, this is where self advocacy comes in. As long as you are pierced with titanium and can prove that, you can talk with your doctors about the fact you will loose these piercings permanently if they are removed, and that they are safe for imaging.
I actually really love episode 19 of mythbusters, where they test myths about tattoos and MRI’s, and the include a little about piercing. They are really fantastic at explaining these concepts in an easy to understand way. And, spoiler alert- myth busted.
For more official academic resources:
1. Sullivan PK, Smith JF, Rozzelle AA. Cranio-orbital reconstruction: safety and image quality of metallic implants on CT and MRI scanning. Plast Reconstr Surg. 1994;94:589–96. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
4. The Korean Society of Magnetic Resonance Imaging . Textbook of magnetic resonance image. Seoul: Chung-Ku Publishing co.; 2011. [Google Scholar]
6. Shellock FG. 3-Tesla MR safety information for implants and devices [Internet] MRISafety.com; c2018 [cited 2018 Dec 12]. Available from http://www.mrisafety.com.