MRI of the Orbits

In this video, Dr. Bailey reviews the orbit on MRI, with a focus on anatomy and a few of the most common pathologies.


In this video, we’ll review the normal anatomy of the orbit and its appearance on MRI.

Orbital contents and normal anatomy

The postseptal orbit includes the intraconal (within the extraocular muscles) contents and extraconal contents. The muscles themselves are a muscular compartment, but it is useful to think of them in the extraconal compartment. There are many things you’ll find in the orbit, including the muscles, the optic nerve, arteries and veins, and fat.

On pre- and post-contrast imaging, you can identify which structures enhance. The optic nerves, for example, should not normally enhance. Lacrimal glands, the extraocular muscles, and sinus mucosa enhance normally.

Optic nerve

The optic nerve can be affected by masses, infection and inflammation, demyelination, and other pathologies. Optic neuritis is inflammation of the nerve, which is usually seen by enhancement in the optic nerve itself. Radiation can cause optic neuropathy, which may even be bilateral. Optic gliomas are tumors that affect the optic nerve and are associated with neurofibromatosis. Optic nerve ischemia can also cause optic neuropathy, often in the acute setting. Optic nerve atrophy is chronic volume loss that can occur from prior insult. It can be hard to determine which of the nerves is abnormal when they are asymmetric.

Optic nerve sheath and retroorbital fat

The optic nerve sheath and periorbital fat are subject to different pathologies, including perineuritis, idiopathic orbital inflammation, sarcoid, certain tumors such as meningioma, lymphoma, and metastatic disease, and idiopathic intracranial hypertension.


The globes can be affected by inflammation, tumors, and degenerative changes. Inflammation can affect the entire globe or only portions, such as the posterior sclera. Phthisis bulbi is a chronic atrophy of a non-functional globe. Melanoma is a relatively common malignancy of the uvea, but can be hard to see. It is sometimes manifested as an intrinsic T1 hyperintense mass. Retinal detachment can often be seen on MRI as well.

Orbital apex

Cranial nerves and vessels are the main things passing through the orbital apex, and pathologies that you see probably arise from one of them. Slow flow venous malformations (previously called hemangiomas) are well circumscribed vascular lesions often occurring in the orbital apex and orbit. Masses such as meningioma also occur at the orbital apex.

Extraconal compartment

The extraconal structures include the muscles, lacrimal ducts, fat, and the periosteum. A common cause of extraocular muscle abnormality is thyroid ophthalmopathy, which causes bilateral symmetric enlargement that spares the myotendinous junction. Lymphoma can cause masses of the extraocular muscles or lacrimal ducts and often restricts diffusion. Infection can extend from the sinuses into the extraconal compartment and even extend intracranially. The lacrimal glands are subject to their own specific pathology. They can get inflammatory changes related to idiopathic orbital inflammation or sarcoidosis. Dermoids are well-defined masses in the orbit, likely near suture lines. Osseous lesions can also extend from the orbits into the orbital walls.


Hopefully you learned a little bit about the anatomy and common pathology of the orbit. Be sure to check out the other videos on search patterns as well as all the other head and neck topics.

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