A magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) scan is a medical scanning method that uses radio waves and a magnetic field to give clear images of the abdomen.

These scans can help show cancers, stones, and other conditions. They are very similar to MRI scans.

Many people prefer MRCP scans to other alternatives, such as endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) scans, because they are noninvasive. This means that doctors do not need to break the skin to carry out the test.

This article will explain what MRCP scans are and why doctors use them. It will also examine exactly what happens before, during, and after the scan, and it will weigh up the risks involved and compare this scan with another similar type of scan.

a person is wearing a blue gown and is in an MRI scannerShare on Pinterest
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An MRCP is a type of MRI scan. More specifically, it allows doctors to look at certain organs and surrounding tissues in the abdominal area, including the:

  • pancreas
  • bile ducts
  • liver
  • kidneys
  • spleen
  • gallbladder

An MRCP scan can help diagnose disease by allowing doctors to visualize the interior structures of the body. It combines images to give a 3D model of the body.

The device scans the body using magnetic fields and radio waves. It then sends the data to a computer, where doctors can see a visual representation of the scanned body area.

Learn more about MRI scans here.

The primary uses of an MRCP scan involve:

  • diagnosing abdominal pain with no apparent cause
  • verifying whether or not there is an underlying cause of pancreatic, liver, or gallbladder problems
  • checking for the following:
    • health conditions
    • tumors
    • kidney stones

MRCP scans can be especially useful, as tumors can develop in the bile and pancreatic ducts, where the device scans. They can help doctors decide whether or not a person needs surgery.

Because it is noninvasive, this type of scan can be a preferable alternative to more invasive procedures, such as ERCP scans.

People going in for an MRCP scan may need to follow specific guidelines. However, these guidelines can differ from facility to facility.

Before the scan

Usually, people will need to avoid eating or drinking before the scan.

Like an MRI scan, an MRCP scan involves staying still in an enclosed space. People with claustrophobia may want to ask about receiving a mild sedative before the exam.

Children who are getting an MRCP scan may also receive a sedative to prevent movement during the procedure.

A person should bring their written order for an MRCP scan with them to the procedure.

Removing metal

A person should remove anything made of metal, including clothing with metal snaps or zippers, and all electronics before the exam.

People with certain types of medical implant should not get an MRCP without checking first with a doctor. Medical devices that may pose a problem include:

  • ear implants
  • brain aneurysm clips
  • metal coils in blood vessels
  • older models of cardiac defibrillators or pacemakers

People should tell the radiologist about any potential shrapnel, bullets, or other metals inside their bodies. There is a risk that metals shift or heat up during the scan, which may cause damage to surrounding tissues. They may also interfere with the scan results.

Many medical devices come with manuals that outline safety information applicable to MRI and MRCP scans. A person can bring this information to their appointment if they have concerns about an implanted device.

During an MRCP scan, a person will lie on an exam table.

The radiologist or technician may place radio wave-receiving devices around the area that they will scan.

Once the person is on the table and in position within the scanner, the person performing the exam will exit the room to access a computer that will receive the results.

The person undergoing the scan can still communicate with the technician throughout the procedure.

In some cases, people will receive an injection of contrast dye and have additional scans.


An MRCP scan typically takes around 15 minutes. If a person is also getting a standard MRI scan of the abdomen, the whole process may take up to 45 minutes.

Since the MRCP scan is noninvasive, it is not painful. However, some people with chronic back or hip pain may find lying still for a long period of time uncomfortable.

Some people may feel some discomfort during the injection of contrast dye, if doctors have used it.

The scanner can also make loud noises. Some people may find this disturbing. However, the person performing the exam will provide the person receiving it with headphones or earplugs.

It is crucial that the person remains still throughout the scan. This can be difficult, especially if they have claustrophobia.

If a person feels anxious during the procedure, they can usually speak with the technician or radiologist in the other room via an intercom system.

An MRCP scan is noninvasive and requires no recovery time.

Going home

However, if a person receives a sedative before the procedure, they may need some recovery time before going home.

If a person received a sedative or anxiety medication for the scan, they should not attempt to drive home alone.

Side effects

Very rarely, people experience side effects from the contrast material. These side effects may include:

  • headache
  • injection site pain
  • nausea


A person’s doctor will receive the results of their scan and share them with the person.

Doctors typically get the results within a few days.

Since MRCP scans are noninvasive, associated risks are minimal. However, they are still possible.

Contrast dye

A person should let the radiologist know if they have any allergies before receiving injections of any contrast materials.

Some people may have an allergic reaction to contrast dye, though this is very rare. The following symptoms may indicate an allergic reaction and would require immediate medical attention:

People who have severe kidney disease may also need to avoid the contrast dye, as there is a small chance that it can cause organ damage.

In pregnancy

People should also make it known if they are pregnant. It may not be safe to have an MRI scan in the first trimester of pregnancy.

There is also a risk with certain contrast dyes if a person is pregnant.

An ERCP scan involves both X-ray and an endoscopy. It produces images of a similar quality to MRCP scans.

During an endoscopy, a doctor will thread a tube through a person’s mouth and down into their stomach. The doctor will look at the person’s organs and inject dye so that they show up better on an X-ray.

The information in the following table may help a person understand the differences between MRCP and ERCP scans in terms of patient satisfaction:

Advantages of MRCPAdvantages of ERCP
This is noninvasive, which means that there is a lower risk of complications.Doctors can perform any necessary surgeries then and there.
It is a quick scan.This can be less costly.
This does not involve radiation, which means that it is safer for children and pregnant people.People with claustrophobia may prefer X-ray to MRI.

An MRCP scan is a medical imaging exam that uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves. It allows doctors to see the internal structures of the abdomen.

The noninvasive scan requires no recovery time and can help doctors diagnose and evaluate conditions relating to the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder.