What Is MRCP?

Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) is a type of noninvasive imaging test that allows your healthcare provider to see inside the fluid-filled organs in your abdomen, including the:

The test is used to help diagnose a number of health conditions, such as gallstones and pancreatitis. It can also be used to look for structural or functional issues that develop prenatally, as well as surgical complications that can affect these vital organs.

In this overview, find out more about why MRCP is used, how it's done, and what to expect during the scan.

A person having an MRI scan.

Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

Purpose of MRCP

MRCP is a type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. It uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce an image of your internal organs.

An MRCP is not a standard or regular imaging test, but your healthcare provider might order it to:

MRCP is an alternative to endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), an invasive procedure that uses dyes and X-ray imaging to get pictures of the pancreas, pancreatic duct, and bile ducts.

Risks and Contraindications

MRCP is safe for most people. While MRI scans do not expose you to harmful radiation, the strong magnets that are used to create an image of your internal organs can cause medical devices, like implants or pacemakers, to malfunction.

Sometimes steps can be taken to address these problems. Still, MRIs might not be an option for people who have:

There are also risks and considerations if contrast dye will be used during the test. Before any type of MRI, your healthcare team will review your allergies and general health.

If you are pregnant, you should not be given contrast dye. However, you can usually still have a scan without the dye, if necessary.

Before the Test

You do not need to do much to prepare for your MRCP. Your healthcare provider will go over the reasons for the test with you, any allergies or other contraindications you have, and give you information about what to do on the day of the test.

Timing

The time of day does not matter when it comes to having an MRCP. When you schedule the test will depend on:

  • The facility where you are having it done
  • How urgent the need for your test is
  • Your preferences

Location

The MRCP test will have to be performed in a place that is equipped with an MRI scanner. These large machines usually take up an entire room of a hospital or an outpatient center. Your healthcare provider will give you instructions on how to schedule your test and where to go to have it done.

Before you enter the MRI room, you will be asked to remove any jewelry or medical objects that might be on your body.

The machine itself features a large circular hole in the center with a table. The table slides in and out of the opening to let your technician get the images that your healthcare team needs to make a diagnosis.

What to Wear

Most facilities will ask you to change into a hospital gown before having an MRCP or another type of MRI scan. Clothing with metal buttons or zippers cannot be used in an MRI scanner because of the magnets. You will also be asked to remove any eyeglasses, jewelry, or piercings before your test.

Food and Drink

Regardless of the time of day that you are having the test, your healthcare provider will tell you to avoid food and drinks for a certain amount of time before the exam.

Generally, a fasting period of at least four hours is recommended. This will reduce the amount of fluid and activity in your abdomen during the test.

Cost and Medical Insurance

An MRI/MRCP of the abdomen is one of the most expensive tests that Medicare pays for.

  • The Medicare-approved amount is almost $700, and medical insurance companies often pay similar amounts.
  • If you were to pay for the test out-of-pocket, the average national cost is $4,656.

Whether or not Medicare or an insurance company will cover the cost of the test typically depends on why you are having it. In most cases, tests ordered that are deemed to be "medically necessary" by your healthcare provider are covered by Medicare and insurance providers.

Some insurance companies may add restrictions on where you can have the MRCP test performed if you belong to a particular provider network.

What to Bring

You should bring a form of photo identification and your medical insurance information with you on the day of the MRCP exam.

You might also be asked to bring someone to drive you home if sedation will be used during your test.

Other Considerations

Your healthcare team will go over your personal history and any risks with you before you have the test.

If the need for you to have an MRCP is critical and there is a reason why you should not have the test (a contraindication), talk to your medical team. For example, some implants are now compatible with MRIs.

During an MRCP

From the time you arrive at the facility until you head home, your MRCP should take less than two hours. There are several stages you will go through during that time.

Before the Test

Pre-test, the technician who will be performing the scan will review some personal information with you. Examples of topics they may ask you about include:

  • Medical history
  • Allergies
  • Reason for the test
  • Contraindications
  • Risks

If you need to have contrast dye or other medications during the test, the technician or another healthcare provider may place an intravenous catheter (IV) in your arm to administer the dyes.

Once you have changed into a gown, been given instructions, and completed any other preparation you need, you will be asked to lie on a table that will slide in and out of the scanner.

Throughout the Test

Throughout the test, you will need to lie flat on a table that slides in and out of the MRI scanner. The technician will be in an adjoining room, so you will be alone in the scanner.

Most facilities will offer you headphones to make sure you can hear any instructions from the technician (like when to hold your breath or breathe) during the scan.

MRI scanners can be loud, usually producing a clicking or banging sound. These sounds can be anxiety-provoking for some people. Your testing center may offer to play music for you through the headphones during the scan to help you feel more comfortable.

The scanning part of the test itself will take only about 15 minutes. However, certain factors can make it take longer, including:

  • Your anatomy
  • How well you are able to hold still during the exam
  • The types of images your healthcare provider has ordered

The scan itself is noninvasive and painless. Your entire time in the MRI exam room should last about 40 to 80 minutes.

Post-Test

When the test is over, the machine will be stopped, and the table will slide you out of the scanner. A technician will enter the room and help you through the last steps.

After MRCP

Post-test, any IVs that were placed for the test will be removed and you will change back into your clothes. If you are at an outpatient center, you may need someone to drive you home if you were given sedation. If you are having the test as an inpatient at a hospital, you will be taken back to your room when the test is complete.

Managing Side Effects

You should not experience any side effects from the scan itself. However, if you received contrast dye during the scan, you will be given instructions on what to do to help clear the dye from your body. This usually involves drinking plenty of fluids for the rest of the day.

After the scan, you might have:

If you had sedation or any medication to help relax you during the exam, you might feel groggy or tired for the rest of the day. That's why it's important that you have someone come with you to the test so they can drive you home safely.

Interpreting MRCP Results

The technician who performs your scan will not give you the results right away. How soon you get results will depend on where your test is done and who ordered it. In many cases, you should get your results in about a day. However, it can take a bit longer.

Depending on the results, your healthcare provider might also need you to have more tests.

Follow-Up

After going over your results, you and your healthcare provider will make a plan for moving forward.

The follow-up care you may need will depend on what the scan shows. For example, infections and injuries can often be addressed in a straightforward manner, while something like cancer usually requires more extensive follow-up.

In some cases, your healthcare provider might need more or different information. They may ask you to do the scan again, or have you do another type of test.

Summary

An MRCP is a noninvasive test that can help your healthcare provider diagnose problems in your abdomen. The test uses an MRI machine to get images of your abdominal organs.

The test is usually painless and does not produce side effects. Your healthcare provider should be able to give you the results of the test within a day.

A Word From Verywell

An MRCP will not hurt and is an alternative to more invasive ways of diagnosing a problem in your abdomen. Some people may feel anxious or claustrophobic in MRI scanners or have trouble staying still in the machine.

Your healthcare provider and the technicians at the facility can take steps to help you feel more at ease on the day of your test.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are you exposed to radiation during an MRCP?

    No. An MRCP uses magnets, not radiation, to create images.

  • Does an MRCP hurt?

    No. An MRCP is painless and noninvasive. However, it may be uncomfortable if you feel anxious in small, enclosed spaces or experience pain when lying down.

  • Can MRCP miss gallstones?

    While it is possible, MRCP has a diagnostic accuracy of about 98%.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN
 Rachael is a freelance healthcare writer and critical care nurse based near Cleveland, Ohio.