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New MRI allows scans of patients with conditional or legacy pacemakers and defibrillators

Many people probably associate MRIs with sports injuries, as they await news of test results that determine how long their favorite athlete will be sidelined.

But for more than two decades, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been a crucial tool for cardiologists to examine the heart and vascular system and plan the most effective treatment.

As medical director of the cardiac MRI lab at Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital – Dallas, I can say it is truly the gold standard test for many cardiac conditions, including congestive heart failure, suspected blocked arteries, disorders affecting heart muscle (cardiomyopathies), leaking valves, arrhythmia and congenital heart disease.

Until recently, there have been limitations on MRI testing for people with pacemakers and implanted defibrillators, especially for patients with legacy devices (devices that are not MRI compatible). People in these groups could not undergo an MRI because of risks that the magnetic and radio frequency fields could damage their devices, trigger rapid heartbeats or even shock their hearts.

This poses a problem for the millions of people whose lives depend on these implanted devices. Given their existing heart conditions, many will need MRIs at some point in their cardiac care.

For this group of people who previously were excluded, now there is hope.

Thanks to advances in clinical research and pacemaker designs, MRIs are now safe for most of these patients under expert supervision by cardiologists and radiologists. This is a significant step because it gives people the accurate testing they need to heal a failing heart or maintain a healthy one.

MRI uses radio waves, magnetic fields and computer software to create cross-sectional images or 3D images of the body in remarkable detail. It’s non-invasive, painless and involves no radiation or known side effects. Patients need to lie still in a tunnel-like tube for 30 to 90 minutes with music playing through the headset, but if that still makes them anxious, a sedative usually helps.

To assess heart function and diagnose problems, a cardiac MRI produces clear images of the heart’s chambers, arteries and veins, scarred heart muscle and blood flow through the heart or big vessels, while a stress perfusion cardiac MRI can measure blood flow within the heart muscle.

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Common symptoms that might prompt the tests include chest pain or angina, shortness of breath, nausea, sweating, fatigue, palpitations, dizziness or fainting.

For people with implanted cardiac devices, the ability to have an MRI adds an extra level of confidence in their cardiac care.

Physicians and staff at Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital – Dallas have the expertise necessary to help these patients undergo MRI testing safely. That expertise extends beyond just cardiac care — they also welcome patients with implanted devices who need MRIs on other parts of their bodies.

For a patient with an implanted device, it is very important to go to a facility with expertise and experience in handling the devices before, during and after the MRI scans. With the close collaboration between our cardiologists and radiologists, we are able to provide safe cardiac and general MRI services with a higher level of diagnostic confidence.

Learn more about heart and vascular care or diagnostic testing at Baylor Scott & White Health.

About the author

Fallon Stovall
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Fallon Stovall is a social media consultant and content creator for Baylor Scott & White Health. Her passion is to connect people through powerful storytelling and visuals.

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New MRI allows scans of patients with conditional or legacy pacemakers and defibrillators