Gadolinium based contrast agents used during MRIs, are known to be associated with the onset of Nephrogenic Systemic Fibrosis/ Nephrogenic Fibrosing Dermopathy (NSF/NSD) in patients with pre-existing kidney disease.
But the use of gadolinium in a procedure call Magnetic Resonance Angiography (MRA) could put these patients at an even greater risk of developing NSF/NSD, because these procedures often use far more gadolinium than a typical MRI. The use of gadolinium contrast agents in MRAs is a growing practice, even though the Food Drug Administration (FDA) never approved gadolinium for MRAs.
An MRA is a variation of a traditional MRI that is used to provide pictures of blood vessels inside the body. In many cases, an MRA can provide information that cannot be obtained from an X-ray, ultrasound, or computed tomography (CT) scan. An MRA is often used to detect aneurysms, blood clots or narrowing caused by plaque buildup in the blood vessels leading to the brain, and it is also used to find similar narrowing in the vessels leading to the lungs, kidneys and legs.
Currently, five gadolinium based contrast agents are approved for use by the FDA. These are Omniscan, Optimark, Magnevist, Multihance and Prohance. Gadolinium contrast agents are used during MRAs for the same reason they are used in MRIs, to help differentiate between normal and abnormal tissue. The gadolinium based contrast agent is injected into the bloodstream right before an individual undergoes an MRA. However, in order to be effective in an MRA, the gadolinium contrast agent must be administered at three times the approved dose. What's more, this constitutes an off-label use of gadolinium based contrast agents – that is these agents were never approved by the FDA to be used with MRAs.
In 2006, evidence began to emerge that gadolinium based MRI contrast agents were linked to the development of NSF/NSD. NSF/NSD is a debilitating disease that affects people with pre-existing kidney disease. The first case of NSF/NSD was reported in 1997, and it wasn't mentioned in medical literature until 2000.
NSF/NSD leads to excessive formation of connective tissue in the skin and internal organs. It is characterized by high blood pressure, burning, itching, swelling and hardening of the skin. Other symptoms include red or dark patches on the skin; pain deep in the hip bones or ribs and muscle weakness. NSF/NSD can progress to the point of causing severe stiffness in joints, and it can lead to death. Unfortunately, for many patients with NSF/NSD, the only way to improve kidney function is with a transplant.