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Magnetic resonance imaging and epilepsy

What does an MRI scan do?

When a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner is used to investigate epilepsy, it takes detailed pictures of your head. It can help to find if there is an abnormality that might be causing epilepsy, for example, scar tissue due to a brain injury. 

What does it involve?

The MRI will send images of your brain to a computer, which will show different types of brain tissue in different colours. The person who does the test is a radiographer. The radiographer may need to inject you in your hand or arm, with a harmless dye, to make the tissue show up more clearly. This could make you feel hot and flushed, but it will not hurt. 

Who is usually offered an MRI?

The MRI is a common scan used for individuals with epilepsy, particularly if any of the following applies to you: 

  • you developed epilepsy before the age of two years or in adulthood; or
  • you could have damage in your brain which may be causing the seizures; or
  • you continue to have seizures despite taking medication.

The MRI will look for anything unusual in a specific area of the brain, which may be the cause of the seizures. 

An MRI is not always used for people who have generalised seizures. This is because epilepsy is unlikely to be caused by damage to a part of the brain’s structure, when epileptic activity starts in both sides of the brain. In this situation the scan is unlikely to add anything to the diagnosis. 

Also, an MRI is not usually needed for people with some epilepsy syndromes, such as benign rolandic epilepsy. Again, this is because some epilepsy syndromes are not linked to with damage to the structure of the brain. 

MRI scans may not be suitable for people who have had a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS) or metallic clips implanted in their brain. There is a risk that the MRI scan could heat up the wires in the VNS or the metallic clips and cause damage to the surrounding tissue. 

Some people with a VNS or metallic clips choose to wear identity jewellery, so medical professionals would be aware of this, if the person ever needed to have an MRI scan. 

What happens during an MRI scan?

The MRI scan can take up to an hour and is very noisy. In the middle of the scanner is a hollow tube. You will be asked to lie on a table which is then moved inside the tube. This will scan your head and take pictures. Some people do not like being in the confined space of the tube and may be worried about the banging noises made by the machine. If this is the case for you, you may be offered medication to help you relax during the scan. 

The scanner is worked from behind a window by a radiographer. After the scan a radiologist will interpret the pictures taken by the MRI. These results will then be sent to the doctor who arranged your scan. This will usually be the epilepsy specialist. 

How do I get an MRI scan?

If you are concerned that there may be a cause for your epilepsy and think that an MRI scan could be helpful, talk to your GP or specialist about this. 

The NICE Guideline recommends that a person who needs an MRI should have the test carried out within four weeks of the doctor requesting it. Epilepsy Action supports this recommendation but knows that currently, due to the lack of MRI scanners and specialist staff, this does not always happen. We are actively campaigning for better services for epilepsy and hope that in the future, waiting times for MRI scans will meet the NICE recommendations. 

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Code: 
F094.01
  • Updated November 2011
    To be reviewed November 2014

Comments: read the 10 comments or add yours

Comments

I got an MRI, due to fear of having a Brain Tumor. The Neurologist said there was nothing to worry about, and there was NO tumor. (Thank God). However he said, that being overweight causes me to have a lack of Oxigen in my Brain during Sleep, and this may be causing my Ocational Brain Twitching. Also, as I developed fear of a Brain Tumor, I got hooked into Alprazolam. I now take less and less, and have been given Klonopin to detox me of the Alprazolam. An MRI is the best medical procedure I´ve ever taken. The peace of Mind has no Value. Not all Brain Tumors are Cancer, and the Earlier you catch one, the better chance you have of Winning. I will continue to se the Doc, and once I´m out of the Xanax, I will post to see if my Brain Twitching (Epileptic signs) disapear. God Bless.

Submitted by Cesar on

hope you are okay now x

Submitted by karen on

I started having seizures while in the U.S.A.F. I think they were caused by my drinking every night and I do mean every night! Thyey put me on Phenobarbital, Mysoline and Dilantin. I went to N.I.H. in 1971,72, and 73 because they were doing research on brain scars and epilepsy. The etiology was unknown! This was before, C.A.T.scans, and M.R.I's I continued to take this medicine for 46 years until about 3 months ago a Dr. put me on Generic Keppra and generic Neurotin. He gradually decreased my old meds and increased my new. I peed on the bed and had seizures in my sleep that woke me up. I told him and he asked me how I knew they were seizures? What? Is he nuts? He asked if I had sleep apnea or snored? He knows I live alone so I told him the neighbors hadn't complained so I guess not. What an idiot he is! No, what an idiot I am for going to him! He finally had an M.R.I. after me asking him for one. He said the M.R.I. was normal! I don't see how it could be! The M.R.I. should show something, Right?

Submitted by Bill Looney on

Hi Bill

It must be frustrating for you if your seizures were controlled, or reasonably controlled, before the change in epilepsy medicines. I can also appreciate, from the information you’ve given me, why you felt that the doctor wasn’t helping you. However, as your diagnosis was such a long time ago, when diagnosing epilepsy was more difficult, the specialist might feel that they need to look into your diagnosis more thoroughly. They might want further tests, or ask questions about your seizures. For example, some people find that the morning after a sleep seizure they have certain symptoms that help them to recognise they’ve had a seizure. But it doesn’t always work out like this.

An MRI can be normal even if you have epilepsy. Some people don’t know what the cause of their epilepsy is, it might just be that they were born with a low threshold to seizures. There isn’t a test that can be given to see if someone has a low threshold. Sometimes the specialist might feel that, because of the type of seizure they have, there is likely to be a cause, but it’s not picked up on the MRI. So, it’s not uncommon for some people with epilepsy to have a normal MRI.

You mentioned that you were in the USAF. Is this the United States Air Force? If so and you still live in America, you might be interested to know that there are epilepsy organisations in your country. These are American Epilepsy Society and Epilepsy Foundation. If you would like another medical opinion about your treatment, they may know of epilepsy specialists near to you.

I hope this helps.

Rosanna

Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Rosanna on

i developed epilepsy nearly two years ago now aged 25 i had my first mri that came back as normal a year and a half on and 3 medication changes im still having seizures and had another mri in september 2013 nearly six months later i still dont have the report from my neuro but after a meeting with my epilepsy nurse a month ago before i left asked about it she quickly scanned through my folder and said oh i cant see anything then flipped to the last page were a tiny paragraph at the bottom she told me that my mri reveled i had scarring on my right hippocampus that was it i left in tears and havent got a appointment with my neuro till feb the last month has been hard not knowing all the details and i feel so let down as its hard to live a normal life with the seizures let alone in turmoil about my diagnoses also having four young children to look after.

Submitted by laura on

Hi

It’s really difficult when you don’t get clear information from the medical people isn’t it. The scarring on your brain may or may not be having any affect on your health. I wonder if your epilepsy nurse explained any of this to you.

If you weren’t given an explanation, it’s not surprising it feels worrying. I am linking you to our information about MRIs.

But I hope February is beginning to feel less far away. And that when you get to your appointment you get all the information you need. Maybe you could write possible questions to ask,  before you go. Or take a friend with you, to help get the information clear.

I am linking you to our information on looking after children, in case that’s useful.

You may also be interested in our online community, forum4e. This is for people with epilepsy and carers of people with epilepsy. People can find it really helpful to talk to other people in a similar situation.

Cherry

Advice and Information Team

MRIs: epilepsy.org.uk/info/diagnosis/mri-magnetic-resonance-imaging

Looking after children if you have epilepsy: epilepsy.org.uk/info/caring-children

Forum4e: forum.epilepsy.org.uk/

Submitted by Cherry on

My 13 yr old son has been diagnosed with suspected epilepsy after having 3 seizures in 3 months hes had a eeg (no results yet) and is to be sent for a mri not sure when hope its not a long wait as we as parents are very concerend to find out why these seizures are happening the consultant said he would get a epilepsy nurse to talk to my son and us about epilepsy as of yet this has not happened

Submitted by yvonne conway on

Hi Yvonne

It can be a difficult and stressful time waiting for tests and diagnosis. Why don’t you contact the hospital to see if you can be given a time scale for seeing the epilepsy nurse and his MRI appointment? This might help with some of the uncertainties.

For some parents contacting other people who understand what they are experiencing can help. If you think this could help you and your family, you may find some of our other services helpful:

Local meetings ­ https://www.epilepsy.org.uk/involved/branches

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/epilepsyaction

Twitter https://twitter.com/epilepsyaction

Online community https://forum.epilepsy.org.uk/

Near Me https://www.epilepsy.org.uk/involved/branches

We also have a membership scheme, which keeps people up to date with information through our magazine Epilepsy Today.

https://www.epilepsy.org.uk/involved/join

If we can be of any more help, please feel free to contact us again, either by email or the Epilepsy Helpline freephone 0808 800 5050.

Regards

Diane Wallace

Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Diane on

My dad has just seen a neurologist today who has diagnosed him with epilepsy without access to his medical notes.

He was admitted to a different hospital last week after suffering with an episode of confusion and hallucinations whilst work. He was treated with intravenous antibiotics over four days which helped massively and in the end three different consultants advised that he'd suffered a viral infection on his brain and all his blood tests, cat scan, lumbar puncture and MRI scan were all clear. He was then told he was being referred to a neurologist at a different hospital where he attended today and without any access to his medical records they have told him he has epilepsy and needs to contact the DVLA to advise them of this. Surely they cannot diagnose something without the facts. The paramedics also said at the time that they strongly believe it was not a seizure and that a viral infection can cause these symptoms. Please advise me here as I am at a total loss as to what he can do about this.

Many thanks

Submitted by Leanne Adkin on

Hi Leanne

It seems unusual for a neurologist to diagnose epilepsy without assessing your dad’s previous medical information.  But an epilepsy specialist can make a diagnosis based mainly on their patient’s symptoms. Any other information such as EEG tests, CT or MRI scans can give useful information but they don’t say if someone has epilepsy or not.  

As your dad is not happy with his diagnosis, he may find it helpful to talk to his family doctor. The family doctor should receive a report from the neurologist, which will hopefully explain the diagnosis. If necessary, your dad could talk to his family doctor about getting another opinion, ideally from a specialist in epilepsy.

As your dad has been told by a doctor not to drive it would be advisable for him not to do so. It could be seen as driving illegally if he didn’t stop driving. Your dad needs to contact the DVLA about his recent illness. The DVLA will assess his situation and tell him if or when he can drive. You may wish to view our information on why someone needs to report health issues to the DVLA.

If we can be of any more help, please feel free to contact us again, either by email helpline@epilepsy or the Epilepsy Helpline freephone 0808 800 5050.

Regards

Diane Wallace

Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Diane on

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