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MRI vs. X-Ray vs. CT Scan: Which Is Right For Me?

October 5th, 2022 | 4 min. read

MRI vs. X-Ray vs. CT Scan: Which Is Right For Me?
Becca Lee

Becca Lee

Licensed Physical Therapist, PT, DPT // Clinical Director, EW Motion Therapy Trussville // EW Yoga Instructor // EW Motion Therapy Trussville

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The different types of imaging equipment available in a hospital or outpatient clinic can be confusing for people not in the medical field. If you get injured and go to the doctor, they can decide the best course of action for your specific injury, but it is always helpful to know about equipment going in. You may wonder whether you will need an MRI, CT scan, or X-ray, and you may not even know the differences between them. 


While X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans are similar in function, they differ in a few key areas that may make one more suitable than the others for specific situations. Our physical therapists at EW Motion Therapy can use imaging results to develop the best treatment plan for your particular condition. Also, if needed, we can collaborate with your doctor during treatment. Even if you decide that EW physical therapy isn’t right for you, we still want to discuss the differences in imaging equipment, so you feel more comfortable going to the doctor.


This article discusses the three different types of imaging equipment, which one you should get for your condition, and how physical therapists can use imaging results in their treatment. With this information, you can better understand why your doctor may prescribe one imaging test over another.


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What are the different types of imaging? 

We will review three primary types of imaging: MRI, X-ray, and CT scan. It is always best to consult your doctor before deciding on one of these for yourself. For most orthopedic injuries, most people start with an X-ray, then, if needed, a CT scan, then an MRI. 



MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, and as the name implies, it uses a magnetic field and radio waves to capture a detailed image of inner structures, including soft tissue, ligaments, and tendons. MRIs take the longest, usually between 45 minutes and 1 hour, and require the patient to lie very still in a tube-shaped machine There are some MRIs now that only take 10-15 minutes, and you may have the option to get an open MRI, depending on what you need. If you are getting a scan of a specific soft tissue, like your brain or a ligament in your ankle, your doctor will most likely prescribe an MRI to get a detailed picture. Your physical therapist can use an MRI to help create a treatment plan for a specific diagnosis, like a meniscus tear, rotator cuff injury, herniated discs, and more.



If you ever broke your arm as a kid, you probably got an X-ray. The radiation is absorbed by the body based on the density of the tissue it passes through, making it easy to see bones, major organs, and sometimes tumors. In some cases, iodine and barium can be injected to give certain areas greater detail - this is an X-ray with contrast. X-rays are considered the least detailed imaging procedures. However, they can still provide your doctor or physical therapist with invaluable information when dealing with fractures, degenerative bone conditions like osteoporosis, and more.


CT scan 

A CT (computed tomography) scan is similar to an MRI because both use a tube-shaped machine, but unlike an MRI, it uses radiation, like an X-ray. A CT scan uses a series of X-rays to create a 3D image instead of a 2D X-ray. A CT scan is more open than a traditional MRI, making it less likely to cause claustrophobia. A CT scan is also faster than an MRI, so it is sometimes used for those with claustrophobia or any other restrictions to getting an MRI. For example, anyone with a metal implant like a pacemaker could not get an MRI because of the magnetic field involved, so they would always get a CT scan if more detailed imaging was needed. In terms of the level of detail, CT scans are more detailed than X-rays, but they are not as detailed as MRIs. 


Which one should I get? 

It can be stressful to figure out the best plan of care when you get injured, so going to the doctor is always the best first step. For orthopedic injuries, most doctors will usually begin imaging with an X-ray, especially if you believe you have a fracture or something broken. But if they cannot see the deeper issue with the X-ray, they might prescribe a CT scan or MRI to get a better look. 


How do physical therapists use imaging results?

Now you know more about the different types of imaging and which one might best apply to your condition. If you get referred to physical therapy by your doctor, your therapist can access your imaging results and incorporate them into your care plan. In your initial evaluation, your therapist will screen your movement and any areas you are having issues with. If they feel you need further imaging, like an MRI or a CT scan, they can make that recommendation. A physical therapist can see you whether you have had imaging done or not. But, if you have had imaging done, it is helpful for the therapist to have the results for your initial evaluation and build out your plan of care.


Determining which type of imaging you need can be confusing, but luckily, you do not usually have to walk that path alone. Your primary care doctor (and physical therapist if you have one) is there to answer questions and provide the best care possible. Our physical therapists at EW Motion Therapy often work with clients’ doctors to ensure they approve of the care plan we implement. If you are curious about physical therapy, click the button below to download our Q&A and learn more about what physical therapy can do for you.

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