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How to Survive Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Updated on August 7, 2013

All Those Horror Stories About MRIs

When my doctor suggested an MRI of my head, panic filled my entire body. You probably know the feeling - fluttery stomach, heartbeat sped up, clammy hands, etc. My mind played a movie of everything I had ever seen or heard about MRIs. “I couldn’t make it; they had to pull me out.” “A friend of mine had to take tons of medication to make it through.” “I went back three times before I could do it.” Yada, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah! Well don’t listen to any of it!

When my doctor’s office called to book the appointment, I let them know I am sometimes claustrophobic. She said she would check with the doctor to see if I could do the “open” one instead. She called me back to say the doctor felt if there was any way I could possibly do the “closed” one, it would give better images. I said I would most definitely need some sort of medication to get me through it (general anesthesia was what I was really thinking). I received a prescription of valium (diazepam) with a couple extras to take ahead of time to make sure I would be okay with it. I tried one ahead of time and felt fine. Without being anxious about something, I think it was a waste to take one. I should have taken one and had my husband lock me in a refrigerator. I’m being facetious of course because I would not want to be locked inside a refrigerator.

I Thought I Found a Good Distraction

A best friend had recently had back surgery, so I decided to visit her the day before my MRI rather than the day after. I thought being with her the day before would be a good distraction. It might not have been the best decision, as my friend’s husband was home. He was familiar with MRIs as he had a couple. He is also claustrophobic and proceeded to tell me how close the sides of the machine were to his face and body. He told me much more but I won't go into all of it. I decided to just put it all out of my mind and challenge myself as if someone told me I couldn’t do it and would need to be pulled out.

The "Dreaded" Day

The day of the appointment, I was surprised to wake up and not be all that anxious. When I arrived, I went in to change and could see the machine. “Is that the machine?” I asked. I was thinking that it couldn’t be due to its short length. When I was told it was, I felt totally shocked and perplexed. It looked nothing like what I expected. It looked to not be much longer than five feet and was open at both ends. If this was the “closed” one what did the “open” one look like? I was expecting a big, long tube that was at least closed on one end. I expecting to be slid into this tube and then the door would be shut and locked. I was certain I would feel as if I had been buried alive. Where the heck did that crazy notion come from? I guess I thought if there was an "open" one and a "closed" one, the "closed" one would, in fact, be (almost) completely closed. It couldn’t have been further from the truth! I now realized people had left important information out of their MRI storytelling; the “closed” one is open on both ends. The open one is not only open on either end, it is open on both sides.

I was also under the (wrong) impression that if I needed to be pulled out after ten minutes, it would ruin the images and it would be a start-all-over episode. Wrong again! I learned it would not be a good idea to be pulled our during the image taking. The images are done in sequences of just a few minutes at a time. In between those sequences and when the noise stops, you CAN be removed. This information further eased my mind.

I asked how long the procedure would take. She said about 20 minutes. I quickly did the math and knew if I counted to 1200, it would be done. That didn’t seem so bad.

When I told anyone I was having a head MRI, they would say, in a you're-in-big-trouble voice, “Oh, you’ll be going in head first.” I really thought my whole body would be inside this 'monstrous tube.' I was only in a little past my shoulders.

My doctor wanted my MRI done with contrast and without contrast. Since I mentioned I can sometimes be claustrophobic and had asked so many questions on the phone the day before and when I arrived, the technician didn’t think I would make it through the first one. I surprised both her, myself and everyone else by willingly doing the second one with the contrast. It only took about ten minutes. Because my veins are quite tiny, the technician had a hard time getting the contrast needle in. That was the worst part of my MRI experience, and even it wasn’t all that bad.

I asked the technician if I needed to have my knee done, would my head be out. She, of course, said it would. I further asked why so many people can not make it through if they are not having images done of their head. She said she didn’t know and even once had a man who couldn’t have his knee done because his "knee was claustrophobic"!

The most important advice I probably received was to KEEP MY EYES SHUT. I later was told a washcloth over my eyes would help. I brought my own music – Seth Glier’s newest CD, The Next Right Thing. Seth’s music helped me through the first set of images, but I personally didn’t like the constraint of the headphones. For the second set of images (with the contrast) I opted for earplugs and to sing Seth’s songs in my head. Unfortunately my singing skills aren’t quite as good as Seth’s, but the ear plugs were much better. Fortunately for the technician I was only singing in my head, not out loud! Thanks to Seth Glier for helping me survive my first MRI!

Here are My Suggestions

So here are my suggestions to make it through:

  1. Do not listen to what your claustrophobic friends have to say; if you keep your eyes closed, it really isn’t that bad.
  2. Give yourself a challenge to do it. One time I unsuccessfully tried to quit smoking and a “friend” said, “I knew she couldn’t do it.” I’m now smoke-free for three and a half years and remembering what she had said, might have contributed to my success in being able to quit. Give yourself the challenge as if your enemy said you couldn’t do it!
  3. Get a prescription for something from your doctor, if you think it is necessary. If you are reading this, it probably is necessary.
  4. KEEP YOUR EYES SHUT THE ENTIRE TIME (especially if your head is going in) or place a washcloth over them. Close your eyes before you are moved and keep them closed through the entire time. I'm very grateful to have had this information.
  5. If you are having your head done, you might want to consider using ear plugs rather than the headset to listen to music. The headset might make you feel too much restraint.
  6. Plan ahead for some sort of distraction – make out your shopping list, sing certain songs, plan a vacation, count to 1200 or just lie there and relax.
  7. DO NOT OPEN YOUR EYES!!! Sorry to repeat myself, but it does seem to be a key factor in easily making it through!

Repeating Myself Yet Again!

After my second set of images was completed, and I knew I was done for the day, I asked the technician to wheel me back in to take a look at what everyone was making such a big deal about. I quickly gasped and said, “Yup, seen enough, get me out.” So like I said – KEEP YOUR EYES SHUT and it is really not that bad! I am thankful to those who told me to keep my eyes shut.

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