Should You Get a Full-Body MRI? Radiologists Aren't Sure the Benefits Outweigh the Risks

  • Maria Menounos recently shared how a full-body magnetic resonance image (MRI) helped doctors find a tumor on her pancreas.
  • Full-body MRIs are best for patients with multiple myeloma, prostate cancer, and melanoma, as well as individuals who have genetic mutations that predispose them to various cancers.
  • Experts note that while full-body MRIs cover more ground, they provide no difference in actual imaging compared to targeted MRIs.

Maria Menounos is recovery following a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, the TV journalist revealed earlier this month. Her path to detecting the cancer—through a full-body MRI scan—has prompted discussion on just how effective or necessary the imaging procedure is.

In an interview with People, Menounos shared that she was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer in January 2023. After experiencing months of varied symptoms—leg cramps, a new-onset type 1 diabetes diagnosis, "excruciating" abdominal pain—and receiving an all-clear from her own medical team, Menounos agreed to do a whole-body MRI scan through a company called Prenuvo.

The scan detected a 3.9-centimeter mass on her pancreas, which was later confirmed as stage 2 pancreatic cancer. Following surgery to remove the tumor along with part of her pancreas, her spleen, a large fibroid, and 17 lymph nodes, Menounos is now considered to be cancer-free.

In her recovery, Menounos is shouting the praises of full-body MRI scans—an imaging procedure she believes should be available and utilized for all Americans.

"I’m working diligently to get this covered by insurance for people and it’s my mission," Menounos said in an interview with TODAY. "I’m going to get it covered for everyone to have an annual scan because it just makes sense."

Radiologists, however, aren't so quick to make such a sweeping recommendation. Despite Menounos' fortunate stage 2 diagnosis, the overall benefits of whole-body MRI scans in average-risk or asymptomatic people aren't clear.

"There's really no evidence-based findings to show that full-body MRI in a larger population will save lives," Zhen Jane Wang, MD, chief of abdominal imaging at the UCSF's Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging, told Health

But are there any instances in which it might make sense to get a whole-body MRI? Here's what you need to know.

Woman getting a MRI

Getty Images / ER Productions Limited

What Is a Full-Body MRI?

A full-body MRI, or whole-body MRI, uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to scan the entire body, head to toe, and create detailed imagines of your insides. It takes around 40 to 60 minutes and can identify malignancies, inflammation, and obstructive growths inside your body.

The imaging system is typically utilized for people with multiple myeloma, prostate cancer, and melanoma, as well as individuals who have genetic mutations that predispose them to various cancers. In recent years, it’s been used for metastatic breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and lymphoma, too.

One such example: People who have a mutation in the p53 gene, which prevents DNA from repairing, have a very high risk of developing cancer and can benefit from a whole-body scan, even if they don’t have symptoms, explained Dr. Wang.

“That’s when we do a full-body MRI—we want to see if there are any cancers anywhere in the body in these patients [who have a] very high risk of cancer,” she said.

The key benefit to individuals receiving a full-body MRI is possibly catching cancer earlier, according to Ryan Brunsing, MD, PhD, radiologist and clinical assistant professor of radiology at Stanford Medicine. Full-body scans may also be used to determine the extent of cancer or track the cancer’s response to treatments like chemotherapy.

Recently, facilities, like Prenuvo, have opened up across the country that offer full-body MRIs to can detect cancer and other diseases.

“A single Prenuvo scan assesses almost all organs in the body and can detect solid tumors in the body at Stage 1,” Andrew Lacy, the CEO of Prenuvo, wrote in an email statement shared with Health.

Lacy also said that the company is working to make its scans available to all who want one.

“We understand that change takes time and our hope is that this is the start of a new wave of patient empowerment through early detection, where patients and physicians see the value of a safe, detailed, preventative, and non-invasive approach,” Lacy wrote.

Targeted MRIs vs. Full-Body MRIs

According to some experts, full-body screenings aren’t recommended for the general population—yet. “[A] full-body MRI is not for people without any symptoms or otherwise healthy or without any risk factors or increased risk factors for cancer,” Dr. Wang said.

She continued to explain that a targeted MRI that scans a specific part of the body is a more effective approach for the majority of people who either have pain in a specific area or have laboratory abnormalities indicating specific organ issues.

For example, if someone comes in with hip pain, they can get an MRI that specifically scans that area rather than undergoing a full-body scan. In addition to being quicker, targeted MRIs can provide more detailed imaging of a specific body part. “For example, the MR images of the brain in whole-body MRI will not be the same spatial resolution (think TV resolution) as a dedicated brain MRI,” Dr. Brunsing told Health.

Whole-body MRIs won’t be able to detect every cancer and they can even miss some pathologies so they should not replace routine cancer screening procedures like colonoscopies, pap smears, and mammograms. “Whole-body MRI does not provide a ‘catch all’ MRI scan,” Dr. Brunsing said.

Prenuvo advises certain patients with localized pain to get a targeted diagnostic procedure. “Our team will often recommend this when a patient explains why they would like to come in,” Lacy stated.

Symptom location isn’t always indicative of where a disease may have taken root in the body—for example, shoulder blade pain can be a sign of gallbladder cancer—and this is where a full-body scan can be helpful.

Dr. Wang was surprised that Menounos’s CT scan didn’t detect the pancreatic tumor since CT and MRI scans are equally sensitive. That said, a targeted MRI on the abdomen—the location where she was experiencing the pain—would likely have picked up the tumor just as the full-body MRI did.

“A full-body MRI is really no better than a targeted MRI that targets a specific body part,” she stated.

Risks of Full-Body MRIs

There are a few setbacks to getting whole-body MRIs—the first of which is the high cost.

At Prenuvo, where scans are not covered by health insurance, a full-body scan will cost $2,499. At a doctor’s office, the cost can range from $400 to $12,000, however, it will heavily depend on your health insurance plan.

In general, a full-body scan is much more expensive than a targeted scan. The odds that your health insurance will cover the cost are greater for those who have a genetic predisposition.

In patients who don’t have a genetic risk factor, abnormal lab work, or concerning symptoms, there’s also a chance the full-body scan could pick up an incidental finding.

“You could discover things that may or may not matter at all,” Dr. Wang said. This could lead to a lot of unnecessary additional workups, like endoscopies or biopsies, she added, along with health anxiety.

For example, the scan could reveal a growth near the pancreas, and your doctor may order additional tests, some of which may be invasive and have risks, to get a better idea of what’s going on. In the end, the diagnosis may be a benign pancreatic cyst that doesn’t require treatment.

“Wonderful stories like Maria’s must be discussed in the context of the incidental findings that require further workup but ultimately post no risk to the patient,” Dr. Brunsing concluded, “which can cause anxiety and unnecessary interventions.”

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  1. Summers P, Saia G, Colombo A, et al. Whole-body magnetic resonance imaging: technique, guidelines, and key applicationsEcancermedicalscience. 2021;15:1164. doi:10.3332/ecancer.2021.1164

  2. People. Maria Menounos reveals she survived pancreatic cancer—with a baby on the way (exclusive).

  3. National Cancer Institute. P53 Gene.

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