Having an MRI scan is a really important diagnostic procedure. If you have a pituitary tumour, chances are that the diagnosis was confirmed via an MRI scan, and there are lots of other conditions that require you to be scanned as well.
I’m an old hand at MRI scans, I’ve lost track of how many I’ve had to check on the pituitary tumour in my head. I just had a scan on Monday, to try and work out what’s going on with my current raised thyroid levels.
Having your head scanned requires your whole body to be inside the MRI scanner, which can be especially daunting if you suffer from claustrophobia or anxiety, and other people usually aren’t allowed to be in the room while the scanner is on.
So how can you manage anxiety or claustrophobia if you need to have an MRI?
How To Manage Anxiety During An MRI Scan
Talk to Your Doctors
The most important thing is to discuss your claustrophobia or anxiety about your scan with your doctors as early as you can, before the day of your scan if possible. They may be able to make special arrangements for you or help to allay your fears!
Sedation During An MRI
You may be able to discuss your anxiety with your doctors, and either your GP or hospital staff may agree to prescribe a mild sedative to help you manage the MRI process. If you think this may help you, it’s important to raise it with your doctors as early as possible before your MRI scan, as it can take time to discuss, arrange and agree.
Open or Upright MRI Scanning Machines
Now, if you’re lucky enough to have private health insurance or a big wad of cash stuffed under your mattress, you may be able to access different types of scanners through private providers. There are upright and “open” MRI scanners available, which are designed to reduce claustrophobia, but these are not normally accessible on the NHS. In some areas, these types of scans may be available if a formal application is made by your doctors, but funding these types of scans is not usually considered a priority.
You should also be aware that these types of scanners usually use lower magnetic fields and thus give lower resolution images than traditional MRI scanners, so they may not always be suitable for the type of scan you need.
Know What To Expect During An MRI Scan
If this is your first time having an MRI, it’s really helpful to know what to expect, so you can prepare yourself mentally for the experience. Most of us have seen an MRI scanner on TV, but that doesn’t give you much of a picture of what will happen to you when you go for your scan.
Some key things to be aware of:
- MRI scans can take a while! 20 – 40 minutes is completely normal. If they have difficulty getting a clear picture (for instance, if you move during the scan), it can take longer if they have to re-do scans.
- Linked to the above, you will need to stay as still as possible in the scanner while the pictures are taken.
- MRI scanners make very loud, jolting whirring and metallic noises which can be a little overwhelming and don’t follow any sort of pattern or rhythm so are hard to predict. You will be given ear plugs. The sudden noises can be stressful and make you jump, which obviously makes it hard to stay still!
- You will be in the scanner in a room on your own, however you will be able to hear the staff through an intercom. You will have a panic button to press at any time if you need it, and they will come and get you. In some scanners I’ve been in, you can see the staff via a mirror, which I think is nice.
- You may need to have an injection partway through the scan if your doctor has ordered an MRI “with contrast”.
- If you are having an MRI scan of your head, your head will probably be placed inside a mask, with padding, to make sure it doesn’t move during the scan. It’s not uncomfortable but can feel claustrophobic.
Non- Medical Ways To Manage Anxiety During An MRI Scan
There are ways to manage anxiety during an MRI scan without sedation or alternative scanners. Here are my top tips!
Distract Your Brain
Give your brain something to do to distract it from what’s going on. I learn poetry before a scan and then during the scan I challenge myself to remember the poems! It’s a great way to make the time go faster and take the focus away from what’s going on around you. If poetry isn’t your thing, try:
- Mental maths puzzles – practice your times tables up to really high numbers or try long division in your head!
- Remembering lines from your favourite TV show or film.
- Navigating a familiar journey – give yourself a destination and visualise yourself travelling the route of that journey from your home.
- Remembering names – people in your primary school class, old teachers, university classmates or work colleagues.
- Anything else that challenges your brain to remember or complete a difficult task.
It’s easy to dismiss breathing exercises as hippy nonsense, but they really can help you manage stress and anxiety. Slow, controlled breathing has been proven to affect the nervous system and brain activity, and to increase sensations of comfort and relaxation. So it’s definitely worth a try!
The NHS provides basic online guidance on breathing techniques for stress that are simple and easy to do. You can also easily find guidance and videos online via a quick search. Breathing exercises usually involve counting patterns of breath, which also works to distract you just like the suggestions above!
Close your eyes
This one seems too simple to be true, but I know lots of people swear by it! Close your eyes when you’re being put into the MRI machine, and don’t open them again until you’re done. This strategy seems to work especially well for people who struggle with the claustrophobia aspect of MRI scans.
How Do You Manage Anxiety During MRI Scans?
Do you have any other suggestions for how to manage MRI scan anxiety? Let me know in the comments!