How to Make an MRI More Pleasant
Follow these tips if you’re worried about noise or claustrophobia
If you’ve ever had a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan, you know it can be a long — and noisy — experience. For some people, being fed into a cold, loud tube and told not to move ranks high on the unpleasant scale. But knowing what to expect — and being prepared with strategies that can improve the experience — can help ease your anxiety both before and during the test.
One thing to scratch off your worry list: concerns about safety. MRIs are considered one of the safest imaging tools out there. “Fortunately, it’s very rare that you hear about adverse things happening during an MRI,” says Jeanette A. Linder, MD, chief of the Weinman Family Department of Radiation Oncology at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.
For folks who haven’t had an MRI and just learned they need one, or those who had a less-than-ideal experience in the past, here are six helpful things to know — and do.
#1: You’ll answer a lot of questions before you get started.
The tech will ask you whether you have a pacemaker or any medical clips in your body (an aneurysm clip in your brain, for instance), if you have a stent in your heart or if you have a bullet lodged in your body. “They’ll run through a very long list,” Linder says. “They’ll also ask you if you’ve worked around metal. If you ever worked as a welder, for example, they may send you for an X-ray to make sure there aren’t small metal pieces in your eye that could heat up or move while you’re in the machine.”
#2: There’s no jewelry allowed.
Before your MRI can begin, you’ll be required to remove your jewelry and any body piercings. “Some people have piercings in not obvious locations, but they’re supposed to remove them,” Linder says. “Again, it’s safest to take them out before an MRI due to the heat generated within the machine.”
#3: Be prepared to lie still.
To get the best images, you’ll be required to lie still. Your incentive to avoid fidgeting: You’ll not only ensure that the tech is getting good images, but you have less of a chance of the images having to be redone, which will only mean more overall time in the tube, Linder says. Tip: If it’s hard for you to lie still, ask if you can bring a stress ball to squeeze — it’s a great distraction. Also, ask the tech to give you periodic updates through the two-way intercom on how much more time you have to go. Some facilities provide virtual reality goggles that take your mind off what’s going on and figuratively transport you out of the machine. If you’re worried about panic or claustrophobia, ask ahead of time whether your facility offers this option.
#4: Ask for music to distract from the noise.
Some of the noise in an MRI device comes from magnetic fields in the machine that change throughout the test to derive the best images. “It’s also very loud in there due to the refrigeration unit that keeps the machine operational,” Linder says. “A MRI basically sounds like you’re in a submarine with horses clomping around nearby.” And while the test itself won’t hurt your hearing, it can be annoying. Ask for noise-canceling headphones with music piped in. Or see if the technologist can play your favorite tunes through an iTunes playlist you create ahead of time. This is also a great way to keep track of how long you’ve been in the machine if you tend to get anxious.
#5: Bank on the possibility that you’ll need a contrast dye.
Dyes are used to enhance MRI images and are injected into the bloodstream or given orally. Dyes used for MRIs have a low rate of causing severe allergic reactions. Certain health conditions — including asthma and congestive heart failure — can increase a person’s risk of an allergic reaction to MRI dyes. Those who’ve had a prior serious allergic reaction to a food or medicine are also at increased risk for a reaction. And while some technicians continue to inquire specifically about shellfish and dairy allergies — the thinking being that an allergy to either puts you at increased risk for an adverse reaction to MRI dye — the American College of Radiology says “there is no evidence to support the continuation of this practice.” They state that these allergies offer no predictive value, and therefore are unreliable indicators for allergic reaction to MRI dyes. That being said, it’s always wise to mention any allergies you have.
However, testing for good kidney function ahead of the test is recommended. That’s because the most commonly used MRI dye, which derived from a chemical called gadolinium, can damage the kidneys in people with reduced kidney function or chronic kidney disease associated with diabetes, says Kerry Willis, PhD, chief scientific officer at the National Kidney Function. Chronic kidney disease affects over 26 million American adults.
#6: Never touch the inside of the machine.
Whatever you do, make sure you don’t touch the inside of the machine. MRIs use radio frequency transmitters that get quite hot. “This is why the technologists make sure there is something between your body and the inside of the machine and you’re positioned in such a way that you can’t touch the side walls of the MRI tunnel,” Linder says. “This is done to prevent you from getting burned as the unit heats up.”
Follow these tips and you should have a safe, relatively stress-free experience. “Besides it being strange and loud, I tell my patients to keep their eyes shut and breathe,” Linder says. “Even claustrophobic people can handle it well.”
Lambeth Hochwald is a New York City-based journalist who covers such topics as family, health and parenting. She is a current contributor to Dr. Oz: The Good Life, Everyday With Rachael Ray and Yahoo Parenting.