My Tips for How to Deal With an MRI When You’re Claustrophobic - Patient's Lounge - Patient Medical Experiences
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My Tips for How to Deal With an MRI When You’re Claustrophobic

Due to my migraine symptoms, I have suffered through a number of MRIs. Being claustrophobic doesn't help. Here are some of the tricks I use.

A single image of a human brain using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine.

A single image of a human brain using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine.

MRIs are an important medical procedure that many of us need, sometimes on a semi-regular basis. Unfortunately, most of the time, they take place in an extremely enclosed space, which makes it hard for those of us who suffer from claustrophobia. But they don’t have to be horrific experiences if we learn some simple tips and tricks to make them more bearable. Here are the tricks I use to get through my MRIs.

Understanding MRIs

A standard MRI, ready to go....

A standard MRI, ready to go....

Sleep

I know, it might sound a bit counter-intuitive because how can you sleep if you're freaking out from being in a small tube? A tube so thin you can touch the sides with you elbows as you lie there and your nose is almost touching the top, except that a fake football helmet-looking faceplate is over your face. So how do you sleep? You just do. While on one level it's terrifying, it's also tiring and boring. On top of that, the fear might give you an adrenaline rush, which, when it fades, also leads to sleep. So lie back and take a cat nap. You won't miss anything, and the loud clanging of the magnets is actually restless in some weird way.

Meditation

Meditation can always help when you're feeling stressed. If you have enough warning for the MRI, you can always download an app to learn how to meditate or buy a book. If you don't have time, the quick version is this: breathe. Focus on your breath. If other thoughts or feelings, like fear or anxiety, crop up and try to derail you, just favor the focus on your breath. You can just tell yourself, "I am feeling (x), but nos I am breathing." Always focus on your breathing.

Keep your eyes closed

Again, this may sound silly or obvious, but I know that when I open my eyes, everything seems (and feels) a whole lot closer. If I lie there with my eyes closed, then I can imagine that there is more than an inch between me and the tube. It can make all the difference in the world: the feeling of space. It also helps to meditate and sleep if you have your eyes closed, so you can let the methods of dealing with the experience merge together and make it a nice, relaxed “time out” instead of a stressful hour in a tube.

Know that you can get out

While the techs don’t want you to get out because then they would have to start over, realize that you can in fact get out. You aren’t truly trapped. If it helps, you can even repeat to yourself “I can leave anytime.” Knowing that you don’t need to stay, that you can choose to escape, can really help relieve the stress that builds up from feeling stuck. In many cases, the tech will give you a bulb to squeeze as an emergency out. If you begin to be completely overwhelmed, squeeze it. No one will think less of you, and you may be able to reschedule or find an open-air MRI or be sedated. (See more of those options later…)

Ask for "time"

Two times that I’ve gone for MRIs, the techs there have offered to give me “time.” I don’t mean that they gave me an hour; instead, they will announce how much time I have gotten through or how much time is still remaining. For example, last time I was in the tube, the tech would tell me, “This next set will take about five minutes.” That simple announcement let me feel like I was still in touch with the outside world, and it helped me pace myself. I knew that I could make it just five more minutes, and the, when he announced the next time, I again told myself I could make it through that time limit. Being able to break it down into manageable chunks is a great way to deal with what may otherwise feel like a really long time – it’s hard to tell just how long you’ve been in there otherwise, and, for me, it’s easier to panic if I lose track of how long I’ve been in there.

Count

When I was little, I had a horrible time falling asleep at night. My father used a trick on me, and now I use it, by telling me to just count. When I babysit, I tell the kids I’m babysitting for that if they can make it to a number (let’s say 200), then I will give them a prize. So far, I’ve never had to pay out. There is something about counting that is relaxing. You don’t need to think about it, and the repetition can help you zone out and forget what it is you’re doing. It also works well if you are getting “time” from the tech; you can estimate how much longer you have, and if you’re counting slowly enough (one Mississippi, two Mississippi), then you may be pleasantly surprised when the set is done sooner than you expected!

MRI with Contrast

MRI with contrast does sometimes add another layer to the problem of being in the tube. For me, and for a few people I’ve talked to, the contrast dye has a taste to it. Now, it’s not like you drink it; they inject it into your IV. But after it’s been injected, I start tasting something like burning plastic in the roof of my mouth. I’ve had multiple doctors and techs tell me that it doesn’t do that, but I can assure you that for me, it does. When I have to have the contrast, I ask them to take me out of the tube and give me a minute to deal with that taste. It lets me relax and try to center myself before going back in. Do be careful, though – they generally don’t want you to move because they need to take the same pictures in the same positions so that they can compare with and without contrast to make sure there isn’t a serious problem.

MRI Experiences

Other Options

If all else fails, there are open MRIs or sedation. Open MRIs are meant to get rid of the problem of claustrophobia by being, well, open! Depending on what you need done and where you live, you may be able to find a specialty MRI clinic that offers them. Another option is sedation. You can sleep through the MRI. The only problem is that insurance doesn't always cover those two options. If you’re using private insurance, be sure to check ahead of time or you may get a nasty surprise when the bill comes. Of course, if none of the methods work to help you get through the MRI feeling safe and secure, then it might be worth the money to check out sedation or open MRIs.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Comments

Mack on December 15, 2016:

If all else fails............. Have them knock you out! That's the only way I been able to take a MRI... Go to sleep and wake up your done It's great..

James Power on June 28, 2015:

Nice article.

Medical Centre on June 28, 2015:

I'm Feeling Lucky, article I was looking for turned out to see you here are on Understanding MRI. Good job.

Payal N Naik from Mumbai on June 27, 2015:

Nice article.

BarbaraCasey on June 24, 2015:

I had an MRI of the brain in 2001 and drifting into a meditative state is what got me through it. I was glad to see that method in your "ways to cope."

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on June 24, 2015:

These terrified me too at first but you know you "have" to do it so I did like you and found ways to get around it. I close my eyes before I ever go in! The noise is so horrible you must have your mind on something else! I almost wrote on this and I see you did it long ago!

Glad you finally got appreciated. ^+

Aurorasa Sima from Chicago, Illinois on June 24, 2015:

Thank you so much for this article. It helped me to better understand claustrophobia. Phobias are hard to understand for someone who does not suffer from them, but you did an awesome job.

RTalloni on June 24, 2015:

Congrats on your Hub of the Day award for this very positive post on a procedure that is very difficult for some people. Once I thought I was prepared for a prescribed MRI. Ha. However, the tech had some real help available. I knew I needed to close my eyes before going in and try to sleep, but it wasn't going to work out until she gave me a tube of air (oxygen, I guess). With closed eyes and the air I thought about being outdoors, relaxed, and maybe napped a bit. What a great solution that was at that time!

Linda Rogers from Minnesota on June 24, 2015:

Congratulations on the HOTD-Woot Woot! I'm claustrophobic but after being diagnosed with lung cancer eleven years ago, I've gotten use to it. I use a lot of tips you bring up here. Closing my eyes is key for me. Voted up and hit many buttons.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 24, 2015:

Congrats on HOTD, Kat! I had a MRI two years ago for my back pain. Yes it was noisy and long, but I go through it and had a quick lunch/snack and bathroom break in the middle before it continued that afternoon. Voted up!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on June 24, 2015:

Congrats on HOTD! I've had several MRIs done. I just sort of "self hypnotize" and I have no problems at all. I'm sure the procedure does bother many people, though.

Eugene Brennan from Ireland on June 24, 2015:

A worthy hub of the day Katherine! This should be useful for all nervous patients, I haven't had a scan since they checked out my head for migraine and found nothing in there!........

Voted up, tweeted, Google plussed and pinned!

whonunuwho from United States on June 24, 2015:

Nice article and welcomed info on dealing with a necessary evil. ( seems so) I have these on a regular basis due to a benign tumor and it does get intense at times. Thank you. whonu

Glen Rix from UK on June 24, 2015:

I had an MRI quite recently. I was apprehensive but I kept my eyes closed throughout the procedure and it was fine. Less claustrophobic than the only occasion on which I submitted my self to a sunbed!

3cardmonte on June 24, 2015:

Great article! I am intensely claustrophobic and DREAD MRI scans, the first thing I ask whenever I go into hospital is "do I have to have an MRI?"

TheCliffWalker on June 24, 2015:

In a sense this is kind of like meditation, but I've found that trying to think my way through a complex and unrelated thought processes works to ease me when I'm having troubles. I make up a short story in my mind, or try to remember every single detail of what's already happened in that day. Pretty much anything that I would need to put most of my mind on works to block out some of my fear.

Firoz from India on June 28, 2013:

Good article on Understanding MRI. Voted up.

NMLady from New Mexico & Arizona on June 27, 2013:

I take Benadryl. The kids liquid. Granted I do not have a horrible case of claustrophobia. This does work form me. I get real drowsy.

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