1. Health Hub
  2. /
  3. scans
04 May 2022

Medical imaging reports explained: understanding your MRI and CT scan results

scans 3 minutes reading time

Medical imaging scans help doctors visualize the inside of your body by capturing clear images of your bones organs vessels soft tissues and joints. The scan images are read by radiologists and used to diagnose diseases injuries and abnormalities. After examining a medical scan radiologists write detailed reports about what they saw and whether it was normal or abnormal. How long it takes to get MRI (or CT) results varies but many radiologists can turn reports around within 24 to 48 hours of your scan.

What is an MRI?

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is a medical imaging test used to detect and diagnose a variety of medical conditions. Radio waves bounce off of a powerful magnet to create digital images of the inside of your body.1 An MRI does not expose you to radiation and generally creates clearer images of organs and tissues than a CT scan. MRIs are particularly useful in imaging the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) the inside of bones and joint tissues.

What is a CT scan?

CT (computerized tomography) scanning is a medical imaging test that uses ionizing radiation to create multi-slice X-ray images of the inside of your body. It’s more detailed than a single X-ray and is especially useful for assessing trauma injuries and guiding surgeries.2

Understanding medical imaging results

Please be advised: scan.com does not diagnose, treat, or offer medical advice on any medical conditions. Only licensed medical professionals, such as radiologists and other physicians, are qualified to read your medical imaging scans and dictate the results. This blog was written for informational purposes only.

Have you ever been so nervous or distraught when someone was talking to you that you completely missed what they said? Conversations with your doctor can go that way sometimes, too. Maybe it was information overload, maybe your ears were ringing in shock, maybe you were momentarily distracted. Whatever the reason, it’s common to finish talking to your doctor and realize you didn’t retain much of what you heard.

This can also be the case when you get medical imaging results you’ve been waiting for. Even though they’re on paper (or a screen) right in front of you, the written results of your scan can be heavy on medical jargon and difficult to interpret.

Features of the radiology report

Your radiology report will be broken down into general sections, which include:3

  1. Scan type(CT, MRI, X-ray, ultrasound, PET, etc.)
  2. Your medical history
  3. Comparisons, if available, to previous scans
  4. Technique(how the exam was done and whether a contrast agent was used)
  5. Findings, which explain if the exam results were normal or abnormal (when this section is absent, it can indicate nothing abnormal was seen)
  6. Impression is the final section of the report. Here, the radiologist aggregates your history, symptoms, findings, and diagnosis into a cohesive summary.

The impression section is the one you want to focus on most; it will have the result-related information you’re looking for.

Here are some examples of commonly used terms and phrases in these reports, and a breakdown of what they mean in plainer terms:

  • “Unremarkable” is a good thing. In this context, it’s synonymous with “normal”
  • “Within normal limits” means something looks regular or average
  • “Morphology” refers to the size, shape, and structure of an organ4
  • “Indeterminate” means something was spotted that can’t be definitively diagnosed by the study and may need follow-up testing
  • “Effusion” is a general term referring to extra fluid
  • “Hypoattenuating” suggests something looks much brighter or whiter compared to the areas around it
  • “White matter hyperintensity” describes a lesion on a part of the deeper (subcortical) brain tissue5
  • “Degenerative changes” typically refers to the thinning and flattening of the discs between your spinal vertebrae.6
  • “Bulge” or “herniation” in a back scan means an intervertebral disc is pushing into the spinal canal
  • Modifiers like “likely represents”, “compatible with”, “suspicious for”, “diagnostic for”, “consistent with” and “probably” mean your radiologist is pretty confident that the image shows whatever term follows the modifier (e.g. “likely represents metastatic disease” means the radiologist is fairly certain they saw metastatic cancer)

The takeaway point here is to look at the impression section of the radiology report and skip the rest. It will have all the important information you need, including diagnoses and recommendations for next steps or tests. If the medical language is confusing or unclear to you, be sure to ask your doctor to review it with you. You can always ask them to slow down, explain certain terms more simply, or repeat what they’ve said.

Booking your scan

For any of your medical imaging needs, head over to scan.com’s user-friendly scan search tool to find a provider near you.


  1. cancer.gov: Definition of MRI - NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms
  2. mayoclinic.org: Tests and Procedures - Mayo Clinic 
  3. radiologyinfo.org: How to Read Your Radiology Report
  4. ncbi.nim.nih.gov: NCBI
  5. medlineplus.gov: Diagnostic Tests: MedlinePlus 
  6. jaocr.org: MRI Degenerative Disease of the Lumbar Spine: A Review 

Find an imaging center near you

Join 10,000 happy patients that have used Scan.com to book a scan.