28 Feb, 2024

Does MRI Show Arthritis? Your Guide to Types of Arthritis and Whether They Show Up on MRI

If you’re experiencing joint pain, tenderness or stiffness, you may be worried about arthritis. An MRI scan can detect the early signs of arthritis, making your treatment more effective and slowing down the condition's progression. We’ll guide you through the different types of arthritis, how an MRI scan works to identify arthritis and how MRI can be used on different areas of the body most affected by the condition. 

What types of arthritis are there, and how many types of arthritis are there?

There are over 100 different types of arthritis, and it can affect people of all ages, including children. Here are some of the most common types of arthritis:

Osteoarthritis (OA):

Around ten million people in the UK have this form of arthritis. It’s a degenerative joint disease that wears down the cartilage that cushions the ends of your bones. Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Joint pain and stiffness.

  • Swelling and tenderness around the joints.

  • Loss of flexibility and limited range of movement.

  • Grating or crackling sound when moving the affected joint.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA):

An estimated 450,000 people in the UK have RA, an autoimmune disorder in which your body's immune system attacks tissues, primarily in the joints. An MRI scan for rheumatoid arthritis can show signs of this. Symptoms include:

  • Joint pain, swelling, and stiffness, especially in the morning or after you’ve been inactive for a while.

  • Tiredness and fever.

  • Unusual symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include loss of appetite, dry mouth and eyes, and numbness or tingling in the hands and feet.

Psoriatic arthritis: 

Around 190,000 people in the UK have psoriatic arthritis, which is a type of inflammatory arthritis that affects some people with psoriasis. Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Joint pain, swelling, and stiffness.

  • Changes to the nails, such as pitting, ridging, or discolouration.

  • Enthesitis (an inflammation where the tendons and ligaments attach to the bones).

  • Dactylitis (a sausage-like swelling of the fingers or toes).

Other types of arthritis include:


An inflammatory arthritis caused by the buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints. Symptoms include sudden, severe joint pain, swelling, and redness, often affecting the big toe.

Ankylosing spondylitis:

An inflammatory arthritis that usually affects the spine and sacroiliac joints in the pelvis and lower spine. Symptoms may include low back pain, stiffness, and loss of flexibility in the spine.

Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA):

A group of autoimmune disorders that cause joint inflammation in children under 16. Symptoms may include joint pain, swelling, stiffness, and limping.

What is an MRI, and how does it work?

MRI scans use strong magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed 3D images of organs and tissues. The magnets first align water molecules within your body and then use radio waves to disturb this alignment. As the molecules realign, they emit location signals that the machine detects, and a computer translates them into a highly detailed picture. An MRI continues to do this, slice by slice, until a clear and sharp image of your body, or part of your body, is formed. 

Does an MRI show arthritis?

Yes, an MRI scan for arthritis is very effective at showing early signs of inflammation and damage, which can help a clinician to diagnose the condition. That’s because it can show detailed images of your joints, bones, and surrounding soft tissues, all of which can be affected by arthritis. 

Can you see arthritis on an MRI?

An MRI scan can show inflammation, cartilage damage, bone wear and tear, and other signs associated with different types of arthritis. If you’re wondering what colour is inflammation on an MRI, it’s usually mid to dark-grey. Here’s more detailed information on how a scan for arthritis might look, depending on what type of arthritis you have:

Can you see osteoarthritis on an MRI?

On an MRI, early signs of osteoarthritis often appear in the cartilage that cushions and protects the ends of your bones. Healthy cartilage is smooth and whitish-grey on an MRI. As osteoarthritis develops, the cartilage starts to wear away. Instead of looking smooth, it may appear pitted, ragged, and thinned out in areas. These damaged spots will also look darker.

MRIs can also detect other osteoarthritis-related changes around the joint. Flakes of cartilage or bone can break off and float around in the joint fluid - appearing as black dots. There may also be clear swelling and inflammation of tissues around the joint, which will be grey. Later, bone spurs or cysts may form, showing up as darker spots on the images. 

Does MRI show rheumatoid arthritis?

A rheumatoid arthritis MRI can show inflammation of the synovial membrane which lines and protects your joints. Inflammation of this membrane is one of the key signs of rheumatoid arthritis. It may look thickened and grey, sometimes with areas of dark swelling. 

An MRI scan for rheumatoid arthritis can also detect damage to bone and cartilage, showing up any bone with pits and holes and thin and uneven cartilage. This damage will appear dark grey on the scan image. As with OA, swelling and inflammation around the joints and tissues will appear grey.

What does inflammation look like on an MRI for psoriatic arthritis?

An MRI can detect early signs of inflammation in the tendons, ligaments, and soft tissues surrounding your joints. Inflammation will appear swollen, thickened and grey compared to healthier, darker tissues. As the condition progresses, inflammation of the synovial membrane will look like a thick grey line, and pitted areas will show where the bone has eroded. Cartilage damage will look like uneven dark patches on the MRI scan.  

On which areas of the body can you get a scan for arthritis?

While a whole-body MRI scan can help to detect the spread of inflammatory arthritis, there are some key areas where an MRI can be really useful for detecting and monitoring the condition. 

  • Knees: A knee MRI can give a much more detailed picture of changes in arthritic joints, such as the knees, than X-rays can. They can show early, subtle changes and inflammation, too.

  • Spine: A spine MRI can allow your clinician to look carefully at the discs, nerve roots and joints in your spine to see if any damage is caused by degenerative or inflammatory spinal arthritis.

  • Hips - A hip MRI can help identify cartilage loss, a build-up of fluid, swelling and tendon damage, all of which can be signs of hip arthritis.

  • Hands and feet: A foot and ankle MRI can closely examine the small joints and bones within these areas of the body. Gout is often found in the big toe and is caused by a uric acid crystal build-up, which MRI can clearly visualise. The scan can also reveal cartilage, tendon and joint damage, and bone erosions caused by gout.  

MRI scans are useful for spotting and monitoring different kinds of arthritis. They help clinicians find problems early, which helps them to plan the best treatment. By showing symptoms like swelling, damaged cartilage, and other signs of arthritis clearly, MRI scans help doctors understand what's going on with your joints and bones, leading to better results. 

How to get a private MRI scan for arthritis

Get your health back on track today and book a private MRI scan for arthritis near you with Scan.com. We can help you skip NHS waiting lists and fast-track your diagnosis and treatment without a GP referral. You’ll speak to an expert clinical consultant within days at a flexible appointment time that suits you. Choose from over 150 centres nationwide and get fast online results, including a digital imaging report. 


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