MRI vs CAT Scan. Which Imaging Test is More Precise?


MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and CAT scans (computed axial tomography) are two of the most common medical imaging techniques used to generate detailed pictures of what’s going on inside the human body. Both provide valuable diagnostic information that helps doctors identify and treat medical conditions, but they work in different ways.

MRI uses powerful magnets and radio waves to create images, while CAT scans use multiple X-ray beams. A key question for patients and doctors alike is which one provides more accurate and useful results. This article compares MRI and CAT scan accuracy across different body parts and situations to help determine which is generally more precise.

The goal is to understand the relative strengths and limitations of each technology to make better-informed medical decisions.

How MRI Works

MRI scans utilize strong magnetic fields and radio waves to generate detailed images of the inside of the body (NIBIB). Powerful magnets produce a strong magnetic field that aligns protons in the body. Radio waves are then pulsed through the magnetic field, which causes the protons to alter their spin orientation. When the radio waves are turned off, the protons realign with the magnetic field and in the process release energy that is detected by the scanner. The scanner uses this information to construct an image (NIBIB).

In summary, the MRI process involves magnets aligning protons, radio waves altering proton alignment, and the scanner detecting energy released as protons realign after the radio waves are turned off. This energy is translated into detailed images of internal body structures (NIBIB).

How CAT Scans Work

CAT stands for “computed axial tomography”. CAT scans, also known as CT scans, use x-rays and detectors to produce cross-sectional images of the body (Brainscape). The scan essentially takes multiple x-ray images from different angles around the body and computers process the data to create 2D and 3D images (YouTube).

During a CAT scan, the patient lies inside a large, donut-shaped scanner. The scanner rotates around the patient, sending narrow beams of x-rays through the body from many different angles. As the x-rays pass through, they are picked up by detectors on the other side. The detectors measure the amount of radiation absorbed by each part of the body. The x-ray tube on the scanner rotates around the patient to obtain images from all angles. A computer processes all this x-ray data to generate cross-sectional views of the body. It essentially creates “slices” that allow doctors to see inside organs and tissues (Prezi).

The multiple x-ray images taken from different angles are combined by computer to create detailed 3D images that can show soft tissues, blood vessels, and bones. This allows radiologists to see inside the body and diagnose medical conditions.

MRI Accuracy

Studies show that MRI has excellent diagnostic accuracy for many conditions. A 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis evaluating MRI accuracy for diagnosing post-ganglionic brachial plexus injuries found a sensitivity of 87% and specificity of 93% ( Another 2021 study looking at MRI accuracy for diagnosing knee ligament and meniscus tears reported sensitivities ranging from 84-99% and specificities ranging from 79-98%, depending on the type of injury (

However, MRI accuracy can vary depending on the body part being examined. For example, a study on using MRI to differentiate uterine sarcoma from benign leiomyoma found a sensitivity of just 68% and specificity of 79% ( So while MRI performs very well for diagnosing many orthopedic injuries, it may be less accurate for differentiating some uterine pathologies.

Overall, studies demonstrate that MRI has high sensitivity and specificity for detecting a wide range of conditions when performed and interpreted appropriately. However, accuracy differs based on the specific injury or disease in question.

CAT Scan Accuracy

CAT scans, also known as CT scans, have been shown to have high diagnostic accuracy for detecting pneumonia. According to one study published in PubMed, CT scans were found to have a sensitivity of 97% and a specificity of 92% for diagnosing community-acquired pneumonia (CAP) ( The authors concluded that CT scans have excellent diagnostic accuracy for detecting CAP when compared to other methods such as chest X-rays.

Another study published in the journal Radiology looked at the diagnostic accuracy of CT scans for detecting pneumonia in immunocompromised patients, who are at higher risk. The sensitivity was 78-100% and specificity was 95-100%, confirming the high accuracy of CT scans even in high risk populations (

Overall, research shows that CT scans are highly accurate for diagnosing pneumonia with sensitivity and specificity consistently in the high 90 percent range. The wealth of evidence supports CT scans as the imaging modality of choice when pneumonia is suspected clinically.

Accuracy by Body Part

When comparing the accuracy of MRI and CT scans, it can vary depending on the area of the body being examined:

Brain: For imaging the brain and neurological issues, MRI is considered more accurate than CT scans. MRIs can provide better visualization of soft tissues, allowing for more detailed views of brain structures.

Chest: For the lungs and chest cavity, CT scans often provide greater detail than MRI for assessing lung diseases or pneumonia. However, MRI can also be useful for imaging soft tissues of the chest.

Abdomen: For abdominal imaging, MRI and CT scans have complementary strengths. MRI delivers excellent images of soft tissues like the liver, kidneys and uterus. CT is considered better for visualizing tissues with high contrast like bone, tumors or blood vessels.

Musculoskeletal: For joints, bones and muscles, MRI is the preferred choice as it provides superior evaluation of soft tissues, ligaments, cartilage and tendons. CT is not ideal for musculoskeletal imaging.

Pelvis: Both MRI and CT can accurately image the pelvis. CT is better for assessing bone disorders while MRI excels at soft tissue conditions like uterine fibroids.

Factors Affecting Accuracy

There are several factors that can affect the accuracy of MRI and CAT scans:

Image Quality

The resolution and clarity of the image can impact how accurately the radiologist can interpret the scan. MRI provides better soft tissue contrast than CT scans, while CT images have more spatial resolution and less distortion. However, advances in technology are improving image quality on both modalities.


Artifacts are distortions or errors that can occur in the image. MRI is more prone to artifacts caused by patient motion or metallic implants. CT scans have fewer artifacts but issues like beam hardening can reduce image quality.

Operator Skill

The technician operating the scanner and the radiologist analyzing the images play a key role. Their training, expertise, and ability to properly calibrate the equipment and identify abnormalities on the scan impact accuracy.

Patient Factors

Factors like body composition, health conditions, implants or devices, and ability to remain still and follow breathing instructions affect image quality and introduce variability that impacts accuracy.

Overall, while technology enhancements help improve accuracy, the human operators, image reviewers, and patients themselves introduce variables that must be properly controlled and managed.

Radiation Exposure

When comparing the radiation exposure from MRI and CT scans, there is a clear difference. MRI scans use strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce images, so they do not involve ionizing radiation at all. Patients undergoing an MRI scan are not exposed to any radiation during the procedure (Radiation Exposure Comparison).

On the other hand, CT scans do involve some exposure to ionizing radiation from the X-ray beams used to generate images. The amount of radiation exposure from a CT scan depends on the type of machine, the area being scanned, and the size of the patient. However, it is generally much higher than conventional X-rays. For example, a chest CT scan may involve 10-15 mSv of radiation exposure, compared to 0.1 mSv for a chest X-ray (DR. TAPESH CLINIC).

So in summary, MRI scans involve no radiation while CT scans do result in measurable radiation exposure to the patient. This is an important consideration when determining which type of scan to use, especially for pediatric patients or pregnant women where radiation risks may be a concern.

Cost Comparison

MRI scans tend to be more expensive than CT scans. According to Aqmdi, the average cost of an MRI scan ranges from $1,200 to $4,000, while a CT scan averages $275 to $1,200. The main reason for the cost difference is that MRI machines require more expensive technology and infrastructure than CT scanners.

Specifically, the magnets used in MRI machines need to be extremely powerful to produce detailed images. This requires costly equipment and installation. In addition, MRI suites need special shielding and airflow systems to accommodate the strong magnetic fields. CT scanners have less demanding infrastructure needs in comparison.

When looking at exact prices, an MRI of the brain or other small body part averages $1,000 to $1,500, while a brain CT scan typically costs $800 to $1,200 according to Umbrella MD. For larger body areas, MRIs run $2,000 to $4,000 compared to $1,000 to $3,000 for CTs. While prices can vary based on factors like facility fees and geographic location, MRIs consistently cost more across the board.

In summary, the technology and infrastructure required for MRI scans leads to significantly higher costs compared to CT scans. Patients and doctors should factor this price difference into decision making regarding which type of scan to utilize.


In summary, MRI and CAT scans both have their strengths when it comes to accuracy for diagnosing medical conditions. MRIs provide superior soft tissue contrast and are better for examining organs, tumors, joints, and the brain. However, CAT scans produce more detailed images of bones, blood vessels, and lung tissue.

For most brain and spinal conditions, MRIs offer greater accuracy due to their ability to detect subtle changes in soft tissues. MRIs also avoid exposing patients to ionizing radiation from CAT scans. However, CAT scans tend to be faster to perform and are the preferred choice for trauma, heart disease, and lung abnormalities.

When it comes to cost, MRIs are generally more expensive than CAT scans. However, prices can vary significantly based on the facility, healthcare provider, and a patient’s insurance coverage. For high accuracy in soft tissue imaging, MRIs are recommended, despite their higher price. But CAT scans should be used for cases where bony structures need clear definition.

Overall, the choice between MRI and CAT scan depends on the specific medical diagnosis needed, with MRIs offering superior accuracy for soft tissues, and CAT scans better for lung and bone imaging. Radiation exposure and costs should also be weighed carefully. In many cases, the two technologies can complement each other to provide the most complete picture of a patient’s health.

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