Patient undergoing an MRI
Vitaly Nevar/Getty Images

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is a technology used to get detailed images of tissues and organs within the body. Your doctor might send you to undergo a scan with an MRI to detect infections, tumors, injuries, abnormalities and a host of other medical conditions.

A radiologist reads the scan and writes up a report so that the doctor who ordered it can make an accurate diagnosis and come up with a treatment plan.

MRI procedures are common and have a wide price range. Given the increasing popularity of high-deductible health plans, patients with insurance now often find themselves having to pay the entire bill for an MRI.

By learning about the different types of MRIs and their average costs, you can call around to find the best MRI prices in your area. And, if you have a high-deductible plan, you should consider putting money into a high-yielding savings account to cover your out-of-pocket costs.

Types of MRIs

Not all MRIs are the same. The type that’s ordered depends on a patient’s needs. While prices do vary depending on the part of the body receiving the MRI scan, cost is most greatly influenced by geographic location as well as the facility.

In general, MRIs range in cost from $400 to $3,500. Some of the most common MRI scans include:

  • Head MRI: Scan of the brain and nerve tissues. It is most commonly used to detect and diagnose neurological conditions.
  • Spinal MRI: Scan focuses on certain areas of the spine to detect injuries, nerve damage and tumors.
  • Cardiac MRI: Scan of the heart and major blood vessels to assess heart health and function. Images in a cardiac MRI can be still or moving.
  • Pelvic MRI: Scan of the area of the body near the hip bones. In addition to the pelvic bones, the scan also shows images of the bladder, lymph nodes and reproductive organs.

Technicians perform MRIs on other parts of the body as well, including knees, ankles and wrists. These are often less expensive than MRI scans of internal organs. It is also common for patients to require a full-body MRI, which can be time-consuming and expensive.

While the typical MRI machine looks like a tunnel, other types of machines are used, including the following:

  • Open MRI: It’s a machine that is wider than a conventional, enclosed MRI. It is often used for patients who are too large to fit in the enclosed MRI or for those who suffer from claustrophobia.
  • Upright MRI: This machine is configured so that patients can stand or sit while being scanned.

MRIs with and without contrast

Most prices quoted for an MRI are without “contrast.” Contrast refers to a special dye that is injected into the body through an intravenous line. This dye enhances the image so that doctors get a clear picture.

Though helpful, contrast is not necessary in most cases, and only about 5 percent to 10 percent of patients do require it. The added cost for an MRI with contrast ranges from $100 to $300.

Other costs associated with an MRI

Some patients must be sedated if they are unable to hold still for the process, which can take anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour. Diprivan is a mild sedative commonly used for patients who feel anxious or claustrophobic during the process. This medicine drives the cost up an additional $125 to $400.

In addition to all of the prices listed above, patients can expect to see fees for doctor visits attached to the bill.

Finding lower prices for MRIs

The cost of an MRI can vary greatly, even within the same city. It pays to shop around for lower prices before going in for a scan.

Hospitals are usually the most expensive places to have an MRI — they often charge three to five times more than other locations. Freestanding imaging facilities tend to have lower prices.

Hospitals and imaging facilities are often willing to work with patients who do not have insurance or have to pay for the scan out of pocket. They may offer discounts for paying in cash or set up a payment plan so that patients do not have to pay the full balance all at once. You might put the cost on a low-interest, balance transfer credit card.

Medical costs add up quickly, especially for those without insurance or with high deductible health plans. MRIs are often considered medically necessary to make an accurate diagnosis and come up with a treatment plan, but that doesn’t mean that patients can’t find prices that better suit their budgets.