What Is Magnetic Resonance Cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)?

Your abdomen is the largest hollow space in your body, but it's not empty. It's packed with vital organs like your kidneys and liver. Some of these organs are located deep within the cavity, which makes it tricky for medical professionals to get a close look at them if problems arise.

Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) is a type of imaging test that allows a doctor to see inside the fluid-filled organs in your abdomen. 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 congenital malformations or surgical complications that can affect these 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.

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Purpose of Magnetic Resonance Cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)

Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) is performed to give your healthcare team a detailed view of the fluid-filled organs in your abdomen. This includes your:

The noninvasive scan 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 doctor might order it to:

MRCP is also a noninvasive 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.

An MRCP is a noninvasive test that can be used to diagnose problems in some of the organs and structures in your abdomen, like your gallbladder and pancreas and the ducts that are attached to them.

Risks and Contraindications

MRCP is a type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. While these 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.

While there are risks with any medical procedure, MRCP is a noninvasive test that is safe for most people.

Before the Test

You do not need to do much to prepare for your MRCP. Your doctor 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, and 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 doctor 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 doctor are covered by Medicare and insurance providers.

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

What to Bring

As with most tests and medical procedures, you should bring a form of photo identification and your medical insurance information with you on the day of the 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.

Your doctor will give you instructions on how to prepare for the MRCP (for example, you might be asked to not eat or drink for several hours before your test). In general, there is not much that you need to do before the test.

During the Test

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.

During 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 doctor has ordered

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

After the 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.

Your MRCP should take about an hour, but you might be at the test location for up to two hours. The test is painless, but if you are claustrophobic or have trouble lying flat, let your doctor know. There are steps the technicians can take the day of the test to help you feel more comfortable.

After the Test

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:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Pain or tenderness at the IV site

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.

There are not usually any special instructions to follow after an MRCP, and the test itself does not cause side effects. If you had sedation or contrast dye, you might be asked to do certain things, like drink plenty of fluids, for the rest of the day to help your body recover.

Interpreting 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.

If your doctor is waiting for the results and can review them immediately, you may hear from them soon after the exam is done. More often, it will take some time for the results to get to your doctor and for them to have a chance to look at them and let you know.

Depending on what the results say, your doctor might also need you to have more tests.

Follow-Up

Once your doctor has reviewed your test results and talked with you about what they mean, you will make a plan for moving forward together.

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

In some cases, your doctor might need more or different information to assess what is going on in your body. They might ask you to do the scan again, or have you do another type of test.

In most cases, your doctor will be able to share the results of your MRCP scan with you in about a day.

Summary

An MRCP is a noninvasive test that can help your doctor 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 doctor 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 a helpful alternative to more invasive ways to diagnose a problem in your abdomen. Some people may feel anxious or claustrophobic in MRI scanners or have trouble staying still in the machine. Your doctor and the technicians at the facility on the day of your test can take steps to help you feel more at ease and ensure that the test goes smoothly.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are you exposed to radiation during an MRCP?

    No. An MRCP is like an MRI and uses magnets, not radiation, to create images.

  • Does an MRCP hurt?

    No. Like an MRI, an MRCP is painless and noninvasive. However, some people feel anxious when they are in small, enclosed spaces, and others have pain when they have to lie down.

  • How soon will I get results from my test?

    If you are having an MRCP while staying in the hospital, you may get the results right away. If the test was scheduled and not urgent, your doctor will probably take more time to review the report from the test. That said, they should be able to let you know within a day or so.

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7 Sources
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