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Study indicates MRIs in first trimester of pregnancy not associated with increased risk to fetus

Toronto, September 6, 2016

By Leslie Shepherd

Dr. Joel Ray
Dr. Joel Ray

Performing an MRI on a woman in the early part of pregnancy does not increase the risk of her baby being stillborn, dying soon after birth or having a birth defect, a new study suggests. Nor do the children have a higher risk of vision loss, hearing loss or cancer in their first four years.

Magnetic resonance imaging is generally thought to be safe for the fetus in the second or third trimesters of pregnancy, but there were no prior controlled studies on its safety in the first trimester, when the fetus forms its major organs and body structures.

To inform clinical guidelines for MRIs on pregnant women, Dr. Joel Ray and colleagues used health data housed at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences to examine records of more than 1.4 million births in Ontario from 2003 to 2015. They compared women who had first-trimester MRIs with those who had not, and also followed their children up to age 4. The results were published online today in the journal JAMA.

“Having an MRI at the earliest stages of pregnancy does not seem to alter the development of the fetus,” said Dr. Ray, who is a physician and researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital and an adjunct scientist at ICES.

The study also provided new evidence as to how many pregnant women have MRIs. One in every 250 pregnant women in Ontario undergoes an MRI at some point in their pregnancy, including one in every 1,200 having an MRI in the first trimester.

Dr. Ray’s team also compared women who had an MRI with the contrast agent gadolinium at any point in pregnancy, with women who did not have an MRI. In this analysis, they did find a higher risk of stillbirth or neonatal death in women who had a gadolinium-enhanced MRI, but the number of events was few. They also found a slightly higher risk of the children developing a rheumatologic or skin condition.

Even though the actual number of stillbirths was low (one in 50), and the outcome of a skin or rheumatological condition was very broadly defined, Dr. Ray said the results support clinical guidelines to avoid giving pregnant women gadolinium unless strongly indicated.

The current study did not include specific information as to why the women received an MRI, or whether they knew they were pregnant at the time. But the study did track the specialty of the physician ordering the MRI: 44 per cent were family physicians, suggesting the MRI may have been booked prior to a woman having conceived. The other common specialty was a neurologist or neurosurgeon, suggesting that some women were investigated for headaches or spinal disc issues.


This paper is an example of how St. Michael's Hospital is making Ontario Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

About ICES

The Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) is an independent, non-profit organization that uses population-based health information to produce knowledge on a broad range of health care issues. Our unbiased evidence provides measures of health system performance, a clearer understanding of the shifting health care needs of Ontarians, and a stimulus for discussion of practical solutions to optimize scarce resources. ICES knowledge is highly regarded in Canada and abroad, and is widely used by government, hospitals, planners, and practitioners to make decisions about care delivery and to develop policy. For the latest ICES news, follow us on Twitter: @ICESOntario

Media contacts

For more information or to arrange an interview with Dr. Ray, please contact:

Leslie Shepherd
Manager, Media Strategy, St. Michael's Hospital
416-864-6094
shepherdl@smh.ca

Kathleen Sandusky
Media Advisor, ICES
(o) 416-480-4780 or (c) 416-434-7763
kathleen.sandusky@ices.on.ca