MRI vs. Mammogram – What’s the Difference?

Updated on February 26, 2021

Each year in the United States around 300,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer, and in 2020, 40,000 people lost their battles with the disease. Until a cure for cancer is developed, early diagnosis remains the most effective way to beat breast cancer. Experts recommend that women start to make breast cancer screenings regular parts of their healthcare routines at the age of 40, and as early as 35 for individuals with histories of cancer within their families. 

Self-examinations, also referred to as SBEs, are the first line of defense in the early diagnosis battle, but SBEs are effective only to the point of noticing differences that would lead to more professional examinations. Options for these are aplenty, but two of the most common and most trusted are breast MRIs and mammograms

Breast MRI

Magnetic resonance imaging, more commonly known as MRI, uses magnets and radio waves to create images of the breast and collarbone areas for specialists and radiologists to analyze. Generally, MRIs are non-invasive, though occasionally an IV will be used to inject dye into the patient to enhance areas of the images created by the MRI machine. 

The primary reasons for breast MRIs is initial detection, but they are also often parts of ongoing care if someone receives a diagnosis. MRIs allow specialists to determine what stage the cancer is in, how well it is being handled relative to a given means of care, and to determine if the cancer has gone into remission. If a doctor determines that MRIs are the best choice for early detection, they are generally recommended twice a year after the initial visit. 


Mammograms are other very common means of breast cancer detection, and are also minimally invasive like their MRI counterparts. Mammograms utilize x-ray technology to create the images, utilizing two plates to isolate the breasts, allowing for precise analysis. Generally, mammograms are very quick, as four photos are taken by the x-ray specialists to be used for doctor analysis. Though no IVs are ever used in mammograms, an occasional complaint is made regarding the plates, as they do cause some patients minimal pain. 

Both processes are recommended regularly by doctors, and it really comes down to patient preference as far as which to choose. MRIs take a bit longer, but patients can lay prone the entire time, and mammograms are a bit quicker, but are a bit more physically demanding. 

Future Imaging 

Imaging technology gets better by the minute, and in healthcare the funding is often available for adaptations of new technologies. Both MRIs and mammograms have 3D imaging options where computers utilize the images from the MRI/x-ray and create models that doctors can rotate, move around, and ultimately deliver precise analysis to patients. In addition to imaging evolutions, artificial intelligence is allowing for health data to be shared instantly across multiple sources, allowing for faster evolution in diagnosis precision. 

Machine learning is another aspect of artificial intelligence, and when used in digital imagery, it can allow for predictive analysis relative to cell activity that may not be cancerous, but could lead to cancer. These images can also be shared widely to help research teams further develop processes surrounding breast cancer screenings. 

Never Too Much

If you or a loved one is getting close to the age of 40, self-examinations should be frequent. Monthly is recommended, though anything is better than nothing. If your healthcare plans allow, you should also plan on getting regular MRIs or mammograms, depending on your preference. Twice a year, at least, is the norm for these processes, but as early detection is the single-most effective way to defeat the disease, you can never have too many screenings. 

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