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How to manage claustrophobia during your MRI scan

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Written by Marie Sanderson

Are you claustrophobic?  It wasn’t a question I was expecting during an appointment with my preventive oncologist.  My doctor had just told me I would need an MRI every year, due to a family history of breast cancer. 

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to show organs and structures inside your body.  The test can be used to examine the brain, chest, abdomen, bones, joints and spine in detail for tumours, bleeding, injury, blood vessel diseases and infection.

During an MRI, you need to lie very still inside the machine, which is typically a tube structure.  If you become nervous in confined spaces, it’s important to tell your doctor.

Andrew Nelson, MRI Charge Technologist at Sunnybrook, says about 30 per cent of patients feel uncomfortable in the MRI machine.  His number one tip for anxious patients is to communicate with the technologist before the start of the examination.  “If we know you’re anxious, we can reassure you before we even start, taking extra time to explain things and do our best to put you at ease from the moment you step into the room,” says Nelson. 

Nelson shares these additional tips: 

Close your eyes

The magnet is open at both ends, and there is lots of space, but you still may feel a little anxious.  “I always recommend that patients close their eyes to distract themselves,” says Nelson, a technique which can psychologically distance you from the machine and the test.  Many facilities, including Sunnybrook, also offer eye covers to patients.

One set of pictures at a time

Technicians talk to you between each set of pictures, telling you how long each set will last.  Sets of pictures can range from a few minutes to 10 or 15 minutes.  “We usually speak to the patient throughout the examination, letting them know how long the next picture will be and how long is left in the examination,” says Nelson.  This can help pace your time in the machine, and the technicians are often encouraging when they talk to you, reassuring you if the images are a good quality and that you’re doing well. 

Seek out cognitive behavioural therapy

This therapy involves learning to control when you’re facing a fear-inducing situation so that you actually change your response.  This is a longer-term solution that you’ll need to start in advance (i.e.: not the day before, or day-of your MRI), but if you’re severely claustrophobic and learn that you’ll need repeated MRIs, it may be a good approach for you. 

Medication

If you’re very claustrophobic, or have had a previous experience not tolerating an MRI scan, let your doctor know and they can prescribe a sedative like Ativan for you.  If you are going to take an oral sedative, aim for 30-45 minutes before the start of your MRI, and make sure you have someone who can drive you home after your test. 

I’m pleased to report that I’ve had several MRIs and successfully tolerated each one.  Be sure to tell your health care team, especially the doctor referring you and your MRI technologist, if you’re claustrophobic.  There is help and support; be sure to speak up.

About the author

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Marie Sanderson

Marie Sanderson is a Senior Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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