Healthcare providers use magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP), a contrast MRI, to diagnose pancreatic cancer, pancreatitis, gallstones and bile duct problems. An MRI scanner takes images as an IV dye travels through the pancreatic and biliary systems. It’s less invasive than an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).
A magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) is an imaging test to examine your pancreatic and biliary (bile duct) systems. This test uses a dye, infused into your veins through an intravenous (IV) line. The dye (called a contrast agent) helps produce clearer images of your organs and the tubes that connect them. The results help your healthcare provider diagnose conditions and plan treatment.
Your healthcare provider may recommend an MRCP if you have unexplained abdominal pain.
This specialized type of contrast MRI helps your provider diagnose:
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A radiology technologist usually performs an MRCP. A radiologist (a physician who specializes in medical imaging) will also be present and read the test results. MRCP is an outpatient procedure that takes place at a medical clinic or hospital.
Different medical facilities use different MRI scanners. The types include:
You should follow your healthcare provider’s instructions to prepare for an MRCP. You may need to:
During an MRCP, your care team:
It takes about 15 minutes to run the series of scans for an MRCP. You may also get a standard abdominal MRI, which can take an extra 30 minutes.
You can go home after your vital signs look good and the sedative (if you received one) wears off. Side effects from the dye or procedure are rare. You should alert your care team if you feel nauseated, have a headache or feel like you’re having an allergic reaction. Someone should drive you home after the test. You can resume your usual activities and diet.
This specialized contrast MRI produces clear, detailed images of organs and ducts without the use of X-ray radiation. MRCP uses an MRI scanner, which creates an extremely powerful magnetic field and uses radiofrequency waves and computer processing to create images. The radiofrequency waves for an MRI are similar to those used for FM radio broadcasts you can listen to in your car. That means there’s no radiation exposure.
An MRCP is a relatively safe procedure. Potential risks include:
After an MRCP, your kidneys filter out the contrast dye. But studies suggest that small amounts of the metal may stay in your body for months or years. Most people don’t have any side effects because of it, but people with kidney problems (kidney disease or kidney failure) may not be able to undergo MRCP. You also shouldn’t get an MRCP if you’re pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant within a year.
Your radiologist will read the imaging scans and send the results to your referring healthcare provider. It may take up to a week or two for your provider to get the test results. They’ll review the results with you. Depending on the findings, you may need surgery or a different treatment.
You should contact your healthcare provider if you develop hives or other signs of an allergic reaction when you get home. You should also let them know if symptoms like abdominal pain worsen.
An endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) and MRCP check for the same pancreatic and biliary issues. An ERCP is more invasive and requires anesthesia. Gastroenterologists, doctors who specialize in digestive diseases, perform ERCPs.
During the procedure, your provider:
An ERCP may take place at the same time as an upper endoscopy procedure. Your provider can also perform treatments during an ERCP. For instance, they can break up and remove stones or place stents to open blocked ducts. They can also do a biopsy to collect tissue samples for analysis. These procedures aren’t possible with an MRCP.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
The uncertainty of not knowing what’s happening with your body can make you uneasy. An MRCP can provide answers. This relatively low-risk contrast MRI test helps your healthcare provider detect problems like pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer and gallstones. Different types of MRI scanners are available, depending on your needs and preferences. Your provider will discuss next steps with you based on your test findings.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/17/2022.
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