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Using a series of intense magnetic fields, an MRI machine can map the hard and soft tissues of a human body.

Magnetic resonance imaging -- commonly called just MRI -- is the next best thing to magic.

Using a series of intense magnetic fields, an MRI machine can map the hard and soft tissues of a human body. Typically it does so by causing the water in your organs to emit low-level radio waves, which the machine receives and uses to create a 3-D image of an organ or body part being scanned.

MRI machines have become an essential part of modern medicine. They are used by doctors to diagnose cancer, issues of the nervous system and neurological problems, and joints, just to name just a few applications. But they aren't cheap. The materials involved in building an MRI machine, not to mention the amount of energy and staff needed to run one, get expensive.

Here's how much it costs to get an MRI, and why.

How Much Does an MRI Cost?

An MRI scan is one of the more expensive individual procedures a hospital can run.

More challenging, the costs of an MRI scan can vary widely. According to data gathered by NerdWallet, an average MRI scan costs $2,600. But that bill can skyrocket depending on circumstances, location, hospital and the particular scan that your doctor runs. Some facilities might charge as little as $400 to $600 to run an MRI. In other circumstances, the price for a single scan can exceed $13,000.

One of the biggest determinants of how much your MRI costs is where the scan runs. An abdominal scan, for example, might be considerably less expensive than a brain or lumbar scan.

Why Is an MRI so Expensive?

A single, state of the art MRI machine can cost over $3 million. Even a low-power machine can cost over $1 million, and the housing for these devices costs even more. An MRI machine has to operate in a magnetically sterile environment, with safety features built-in to make sure that the powerful field generated by the machine doesn't damage people or property nearby.

Building a clean room for an MRI machine costs hundreds of thousands of dollars on its own.

An MRI machine is also expensive to operate. It takes a lot of energy to run, and depending on the scan a doctor might order what's known as "contrast dye." This magnetically responsive liquid helps certain elements stand out in the final image, and can add hundreds of dollars to the bill.

The time of the doctors and technicians involved costs money, too. A technician must run the scan and a radiologist must supervise it and interpret the results. Depending on your hospital's billing practices, these elements may be bundled into one price for the scan.

And, on top of all of this, medical billing can vary. It is also possible that a hospital will price an MRI scan not just based on the costs of that scan itself, but also based on other costs of running their facility. Built into every bill from a hospital are the costs of paying for general nursing staff, hospital administrators, building maintenance and operations.

How this factors into the price of a scan changes from institution to institution, and is one of the reasons why it's generally cheaper to get a scan from an imaging center than at a hospital.

Are MRI's Covered By Insurance?

Generally, yes.

Individual insurance varies widely, but an MRI scan is a well-recognized and accepted diagnostic tool. As long as your insurance covers the issue for which you're receiving treatment, it will likely cover an MRI scan.

However, co-payments and deductibles can still make an MRI scan an expensive procedure. With high-deductible insurance plans common, the expense of an MRI can become a very real problem for individual patients.