Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been around for decades, but it's only within the past several years that physicians have begun using the technology on a regular basis to examine the heart.
Thanks to new technological advances, the test is now widely used to diagnose numerous cardiovascular conditions, including congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, and the extent of heart muscle damage caused by heart attacks (some of which may go unrecognized with less sensitive technology).
MRIs help predict sudden cardiac death
A research team from Johns Hopkins used MRI scans to determine in 2005 that the thickness of scar tissue resulting from a heart attack was an accurate predictor of the risk of sudden death from arrhythmia and could prove valuable in identifying patients in need of an implantable defibrillator or other aggressive treatment.
While a cardiac MRI can produce 3-D images that are far more detailed and precise than fuzzy, 2-D echocardiograms, the procedure is also about five times more expensive. Insurers often resist the use of the technology for screening purposes, but it's usually covered in serious cases. "Generally one can get reimbursed if there's a suspected pathology," says Raymond Stainback, MD, the medical director of noninvasive cardiac imaging at the Texas Heart Institute, in Houston. "Insurers have become much more open to that."