I have never heard anyone say that they are looking forward to an MRI scan. To most patients, these procedures are right up there with a visit to the dentist. The MRI patient is squeezed into a very narrow tunnel, then bombarded with loud, scary noises. Not the best way to spend an afternoon.
While experiencing anxiety and claustrophobia during an MRI scan is very common, sometimes the anticipation of an upcoming scan can be equally stressful. Fortunately, there are ways to ease patient’s anxieties and help you relax and stay calm throughout the procedure.
What is an MRI?
If you have an injury or illness, an MRI scan may be necessary for a doctor to make an accurate diagnosis. The MRI process uses a magnetic field and radio waves to take detailed images of the inside of your body. These images can help doctors pinpoint the affected area of the body. The procedure is physically harmless, but can have a dramatic effect on the patient’s mental state.
Anxiety symptoms may include:
- Elevated pulse or blood pressure.
- A feeling of panic
So, how do you reduce anxiety for an MRI scan?
Depending on the injury or illness, an MRI scan can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. Most are short, but can be just as frightening. It is during this timeframe that the patient needs to be distracted from what is happening and given ways to cope with the fear they may be experiencing.
Let’s start before your appointment.
Talk to your doctor
Ask your referring doctor what the MRI experience will be like. The doctor can give you the play by play so you’ll know exactly what to expect. You may not know this, but some scans do not require your head to go into the tight fitting bore. If the scan is for the lower half of the body, like ankles, knees, pelvis or lower back, you will go into the tunnel feet first. This means the top half on your body, including your head, will not be within the confined space. Many patients do not realize this and psyche themselves out before for arriving at the imaging center. Some facilities may have an open MRI machine which is designed with a much wider bore so you don’t feel so closed in. These are ideal for those who suffer from claustrophobia.
Do some homework
By doing a little research beforehand, you will get a better understanding of what an MRI procedure is all about. Once you realize the procedure is harmless, you will gain confidence. On the big day, have the technologist explain exactly how the MRI machine works and what the scan will be like. They can prepare you for the sounds you will soon hear and what type of equipment will be used. By becoming familiar with the machine and how it works, your stress will subside.
Drown out the noise
On top of the confined space of the bore, MRI machines can be very noisy. Some can be as loud as a jet plane or rock concert. This does not exactly help with the anxiety and can increase fidgeting and body movement. Most hospitals and imaging centers will provide you with headphones to help cancel the noise. For your safety, be sure the ear protection is rated up to 29 decibels.
Listen to some tunes
Music can be a soothing distraction during an MRI scan. Some facilities have audio systems that allow you to listen to music through your headphones. Before the procedure, the technologist will allow you to select your favorite music genre, talk radio or podcast. You are not allowed to bring a phone into the MRI suite, so this is a great option. Audio systems, such as the MRIaudio Sound System are loaded with streaming apps such as Pandora, Spotify, iHeart Radio and more. The technologist will still have the ability to communicate by microphone through the headphones while you listen to your music.
Wear loose clothing
Unless you are required to wear a hospital gown, pretend you’re at home, put on some sweats and kick off your shoes. Sweats or yoga pants are ideal because an MRI machine is basically a giant magnet. You will not be able to wear any type of clothing with metal. Any zippers, buttons or rivets will distort the scan. Even jewelry, piercings, keys or coins will have to go.
Close your eyes
You can’t be scared of what you can’t see. By closing your eyes, the darkness will prevent you from looking around and get the feeling of being trapped. Perhaps bring a sleeping mask or place a cloth over your eyes before they slide you in the bore.
Take a mental vacation
It is such a cliche, but picture yourself on a beach relaxing in the sun. You can go anywhere in the world to escape. Maybe not so much the loud streets of New York, but somewhere tranquil like a national park. Perhaps re-live a vacation or a local adventure you once took. Visualize the good times with family and friends. Just go wander!
You will have the ability to talk with the technologist during the scan. If you are feeling at all uncomfortable, let them know immediately. Patients are also closely monitored by the technologist with audio or video. A little back and forth conversation can help alleviate the problem. The technologist is all about patient comfort. They need you to relax and stay still for an accurate scan.
There is a simple form of meditation that will help reduce hyperventilating, a panic attack or PTSD. By focusing on your breathing, even counting each breath, will allow a calmness to flow over you. Try inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Again, close your eyes, breathe deep and go to that happy place.
Bring a family member or friend
This might not be an option because of Covid-19 protocols, but if allowed, bring someone with you to the procedure. On the drive over, talk through your fears before arrival. Remember what you discussed with the doctor and reassure yourself it’s harmless. Some imaging center will allow your companion to enter the MRI suite and stay for the procedure. Just having someone there you know and trust touching your foot or hand can be comforting.
Ask for pillows and blankets
MRI suites can be cold. A nice blanket on top will keep you warm and cozy. Pillows are always available for your head. The technologist may use cushioned knee wedges and pads that helps the patient stay comfortable and motionless during a scan. These pads also reduce peak pressure and friction for improved blood flow.
This would be the last option, but if you have severe claustrophobia or anticipate an anxiety attack, a mild sedation might be beneficial. This type of medication or anti-anxiety drug won’t put you to sleep, but will relax you enough to get through a scan. A worst case scenario could be an IV anesthesia. Always consult your doctor on the right medication to take and when to take it.