Doctors use tests called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans to diagnose possible heart problems and to monitor children who have been diagnosed with heart conditions. Images from these tests help doctors understand the health of your child’s heart and plan possible interventions and treatments.
A cardiac MRI is a test that uses a large magnet to produce signals from the atoms within the body, and then collects and magnifies these signals into pictures of the body. An MRI can show clear images of the chambers of the heart and large blood vessels.
By using this test, your child's doctor can understand how well the heart is pumping and how blood is flowing through the heart and vessels.
What to expect from a cardiac MRI
Because an MRI can take a few hours to perform, most kids under 8 years old will receive general anesthesia to help them lie still during the test. Nearly all children will have an IV that is used to administer a contrast dye; this helps the doctor to see the heart and blood vessels more clearly.
How long does a cardiac MRI take?
A pediatric cardiac MRI typically takes between 30 minutes and 2 hours to complete. Most families at our Heart Institute can expect the test to take 90 minutes (1.5 hours).
You're welcome to bring an iPod or mp3 player if your child would like to listen to music during the test. If your child’s cardiac MRI takes place at our hospital at Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, South Campus in Highlands Ranch or Briargate in Colorado Springs, kids 8 years and older can watch a movie during the test to help relax and pass the time. We have a collection of movies at these locations, or feel free to bring your child's favorite. (Movies are not currently available at North Campus in Broomfield.)
Learn more about getting an MRI at Children’s Hospital Colorado with information for parents and information for kids.
Pediatric CT scans
Your child's doctor could order a pediatric CT scan (also known as a CAT scan) to get more detailed information about your child’s heart than can be seen on a normal X-ray. The CT scan is a painless test that shows detailed images of the internal structures of the heart.
What to expect from a pediatric CT scan
During a cardiac CT scan, an X-ray machine moves around your child's body in a circle to take a picture of each part of their heart. A computer then puts the pictures together to make a three-dimensional (3D) picture of the whole heart.
Some CT scans might require that a dye is administered intravenously to your child to provide contrast for the picture. Your child will need to lie very still during the test for at least 30 minutes, and younger patients sometimes need to be lightly sedated.
Learn why we use special CT scans for kids.
3D heart model printouts
For some patients, the Heart Institute at Children’s Colorado can use the information from a cardiac MRI or CT scan along with three-dimensional (3D) printing technology to build a life-sized model of a patient’s heart. This allows us to understand your child’s heart in ways that were previously not possible.
This technique uses information collected during a CT scan or cardiac MRI to build a virtual model, which is then used to build (or “print”) an exact physical model of your child’s heart. This is only available to patients who have a medical need for a cardiac MRI or CT scan.
Benefits of 3D printing the heart
When appropriate, we provide families with a model of your child’s heart to help you understand what the heart or blood vessels look like and what interventions are needed. Printing an exact anatomical model of a patient’s heart also allows us to:
- Understand abnormalities in the heart and blood vessels
- Provide counseling and education to eligible families before surgery
- Plan complex surgeries
- Plan interventions in the cardiac catheterization laboratory
- Educate medical trainees
Learn more about research and innovation at the Heart Institute.
Find locations with MRI and CT services.
Learn about other common heart tests.