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Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and epilepsy

What an MRI scan does
What it involves
How you might feel during your MRI scan
After your MRI scan
People who might have an MRI scan
Before your scan is ordered
An MRI scan may not be useful for everyone
How to get an MRI scan
Further information

What an MRI scan does

MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging. An MRI scan uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to create pictures on a computer, of tissues, organs and other structures inside your body.

Some people have epilepsy because they have some damage in their brain. This may have been caused by scar tissue from an illness or a brain injury. An MRI scan is used to show this type of damage.

What it involves

The MRI scanner is like a tunnel. It is about 1.5 metres (5 feet) long and is surrounded by a large circular magnet. You lie on a bed, which then slides into the open-ended scanner. During the scan, the MRI will send images of your brain to a computer, which will show different types of brain tissue in different colours.

The MRI scan itself is not painful. The radiographer who does the scan might need to inject you in your hand or arm, with a harmless dye. This is to make the tissue show up as clearly as possible.  A few people have had allergies to the dye, so the radiographer will ask if you have any allergies first.

You need to keep still while you are being scanned, otherwise the scan picture may be blurred.

The MRI scan can take up to an hour.

How you might feel during your MRI scan

The MRI is noisy when it is scanning but you will be given earplugs or headphones to protect your hearing. The inside of the scanner is like a hollow open-ended tube. You might find this worrying if you are uncomfortable in confined spaces. You may be given a buzzer to hold, so that you can let the radiographer know if you feel uncomfortable during the scan.

To help you to relax, you might be able to listen to music, or watch a DVD while the scan is done. A relative or friend might be able to go into the room with you.

If you feel nervous, or can’t keep still while the scan is being done, you could be offered medicine to help you relax or sleep.  Young children and people with learning disabilities may need a very light general anaesthetic to make sure that they keep completely still during the scan.

After your MRI scan

After your scan, a radiologist will read the pictures taken by the MRI. They will then send your results to the doctor who arranged your scan. This will usually be your epilepsy specialist.

People who might have an MRI scan

You might be offered an MRI scan when you are first being investigated for epilepsy, or if your seizures are difficult to control. The National Institute for Care and Health Excellence (NICE) recommends that you should have an MRI scan if you are in one of the following groups :

  • You developed epilepsy before the age of two years
  • You developed epilepsy when you were an adult
  • You might have damage in your brain which could be causing the seizures
  • You continue to have seizures despite taking epilepsy medicines

Before your scan is ordered

If you are being considered for an MRI scan, your doctor will ask whether you have a pacemaker, vagal nerve stimulator, or any other metal parts in your body. This is because The MRI scanner uses an extremely strong magnet, which can move, or damage metal objects, or affect the way they work. Metal objects can also affect the quality of the pictures from the scan. So, if you have metal in your body, an MRI scan is not suitable for you. However, if you can’t have an MRI scan, your epilepsy specialist, nurse or doctor may be able to arrange for you to have a different type of scan.

An MRI may not be useful for everyone

An MRI is not always useful for people who have:

  • Generalised seizures(when seizures affect both halves of their brain) or
  • Benign rolandic epilepsy

This is because these epilepsies are unlikely to be caused by damage to a single part of the brain. So, an MRI scan is unlikely to find anything that could help with a diagnosis.

How to get an MRI scan

An MRI needs to be arranged by a GP, epilepsy nurse or specialist.  If you believe an MRI scan would help get the best treatment for your epilepsy, you could ask them about arranging an MRI for you.

NICE recommends that people with epilepsy who need an MRI scan should have one done within four weeks of the doctor requesting it.

Further Information

More information about MRI scans on nhs.uk

If you would like to see this information with references, visit the Advice and Information references section of our website. If you are unable to access the internet, please contact our Epilepsy Freephone Helpline on 0808 800 5050.

Pay it forward

This resource is freely available as part of Epilepsy Action’s commitment to improving life for all those affected by epilepsy.

On average it costs £414 to produce an advice and information page – if you have valued using this resource, please text FUTURE to 70500 to donate £3 towards the cost of our future work. Terms and conditions. Thank you

We can provide references and information on the source material we use to write our epilepsy advice and information pages. Please contact our Epilepsy Helpline by email at helpline@epilepsy.org.uk.

Epilepsy Action would like to thank Dr Amanda Freeman, Consultant Paediatrician at Queen Alexandra Hospital, Portsmouth, UK for her contribution to this information.
Dr Amanda Freeman has no conflict of interest to declare.

This information has been produced under the terms of The Information Standard.

  • Updated December 2014
    To be reviewed December 2017

Comments: read the 4 comments or add yours


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.


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.


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.


Diane Wallace

Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Diane on