How To Overcome Claustrophobia During An MRI Scan
If you are claustrophobic and anxious about getting an MRI, you are not alone. Claustrophobia affects about 12.5% of the population, but getting an MRI can pose significant issues for more than 9% since MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans involve inserting the patient into a large magnetic tube. While this tube may be open on both ends and well lit, people can experience claustrophobia or anxiety while inside. Thankfully, there are many solutions to this very common problem.
MR images give doctors the clearest scans of your internal organs, tissues, and skeletal system. The scan itself will take between 15-90 minutes during which you might have to lay in different positions, stay perfectly still, and maybe even hold your breath. If that sentence made you at all nervous, keep reading for some helpful practices to combat those nerves.
MRI machines are made up of a 60 cm (or 23.6 in) wide tube that is open on both ends, and a bed that slides in and out of the tube. Inside the tube are magnets that create a frequency to take images of your body. The magnetic tube is small in size so that the magnets will be close to the part of the body being imaged.
There are alternately sized MRI machines that have wider openings for the comfort of the patient. Wide-bore MRI machines have an opening of 70 cm (or 27.5 in) and that 10 cm (or 3.9 in) can make all the difference to some patients. Another option would be an open MRI machine. These machines are open on all 4 sides while the magnet is above and below the patient. Talk with your doctor about these alternatives if you are nervous about having your scan performed in a traditional (or closed) MRI machine.
Depending on what part of your body you are having scanned, your whole body may or may not have to be fully inside the MRI machine. Usually, you will be inserted into the machine head first, but this can once again change depending on what part of the body is being scanned. If you are having your lower extremities scanned, your feet will be inserted first and your head may be able to stay outside the magnetic tube.
If your doctor has recommended or required you to get an MRI, then they have considered all the risks and benefits and decided the clear and precise images are worth it. Talk to your doctor about your anxiety about going into an MRI. They might be able to get your scan done with a different type of MRI machinery.
MRIs usually take between 15-90 minutes. This type of scan takes longer because your doctor often wants different angles and poses. You will be removed from the MRI machine to change poses – you will not be asked to move around once you are in the machine. You will need to keep completely still while the scan takes place to avoid blurry scans.
Your appointment could take longer for a couple of reasons. If your doctor has prescribed you anti-anxiety medication or if you are being sedated for your MRI, you will need to arrive earlier for your appointment. If you are getting an MRI with fluoroscopy (or with contrast), you will need to arrive early to your appointment to ingest the solution. And finally, if your scans come out blurry because of movement or other factors, they may have to be retaken, meaning a longer appointment.
You can breathe normally during your MRI, despite the staff’s instructions to hold perfectly still. Taking deep, slow breaths while inside the machine can help calm you down. Try counting to 10 while you breathe in through your nose, then breathe out through your mouth. Depending on what part of your body you are having scanned, you may have to hold your breath. If your radiologist asks you to hold your breath, the longest you will have to do so is 20 seconds, usually repeatedly over a 20-minute period.
The interior of a closed MRI machine is well lit and ventilated. There is a fan continuously blowing air through the tube. There is an intercom system inside the tube so that you can communicate with your radiologist while your scan is happening. There is also an alert button inside the machine that you can press in case you start to panic.
Only 5% of people panic when inside the MRI machine. In the rare case that this happens to you, press the panic button and communicate as best you can with your radiologist. Do not attempt to get out of the tube yourself – let the bed slide out of the metal tube before you move. By pressing the button and stopping the scan, you will need to start over when it comes to getting your images. Here are a few suggestions to help prevent panic from starting in the MRI machine:
- Stretching before your scan helps keep you limber while you lay still for prolonged periods of time.
- Practicing breathing techniques and grounding exercises can help you stay in the moment and panic less.
- Closing your eyes during your scan is allowed, and even sometimes recommended so you can forget where you are and picture yourself in a safe, happy place.
During your scan, our staff will do everything we can to make you as comfortable as possible. We will give you a blanket, a headrest, earphones or earplugs, and a washcloth to cover your face (although you need to be careful not to fall asleep during your scan – you might twitch in your sleep and mess up the scan!).
Inside the machine, you will have an intercom so you can communicate with the radiologist throughout the whole procedure. You will also have a panic button you can press if you start to feel overwhelmed and need to get out of the machine as soon as possible. Some patients have said that just having the option of the panic button made them feel more in control and calm during their scan.
If you are anxious about panicking during your scan, ask your doctor about sedation or anesthesia options. The standard options are as follows: IV sedation (Versed or fentanyl) or benzodiazepines (Xanax, Ativan, or Valium). If your doctor wants you to be more awake instead of fully sedated, they will likely choose benzodiazepines. IV sedation will last 1-2 hours, which is why it is important that you arrange for someone to drive you home after your appointment.
Do not self-medicate before your MRI. Go over all sedation options with your doctor before your scheduled appointment – there may be other conditions that make you unsuitable for sedation (if you are pregnant, your age, potential allergy to medication, if you are taking other medications that could interfere with sedation, if you have anemia, etc.). If you are given any type of sedation, you will need to arrive earlier for your scan. Consult your doctor for specific requirements around your appointment.
As we mentioned earlier, there are alternative MRI methods that could alleviate your claustrophobia without sedating you. Open MRI machines are a great alternative for patients who are worried about claustrophobia with traditional MRI machines. There are a couple of major differences between the two that could help you and your doctor make a decision.
An open MRI machine is open on four sides with the magnet above and below the patient, so you won’t be fully enclosed inside a metal tube for your scan. This structure is best for claustrophobic people, children, and physically disabled people. The open MRI machine is less noisy and can usually cost less than a traditional MRI. On the other hand, a traditional MRI is better at diagnosing a wide range of ills and decay and produces clearer images than an open MRI. A traditional MRI also takes a shorter amount of time to finish scans.
Both scans have pros and cons, but ultimately, the choice comes down to your comfort and preference. Talk with your doctor about any alternative MRI options you may have.
Claustrophobia is a roadblock for many people, but it does not need to stop you from getting the care you need. By getting your MRI from a smaller, independent imaging center like SJRA, you guarantee that your needs will be prioritized. You are more than a number to us – we want to make you feel as comfortable as possible and to get you the care you need. Set up your MRI appointment with SJRA today at any of the following locations:
- Route 73 Office – Voorhees, NJ
- Greentree Office – Marlton, NJ
- Washington Township Office – Sewell, NJ
- Turnersville Office – Washington Township, NJ
- Voorhees Office – Voorhees, NJ
- West Deptford Office – West Deptford, NJ
(Meet the staff members who will be performing your study here.)