Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a tool that is ubiquitous with multiple sclerosis diagnosis and disease monitoring. It uses electromagnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed images of the body, including myelin, inflammation, and neurodegeneration. The scans for MS can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2.5 hours, depending upon which parts of the central nervous system are being examined: brain, cervical spine, and/or thoracic spine.
It’s no fun to get an MRI — knock knock tap tap tap buzz buzz buzz tap tap tap. MRI machines are LOUD and uncomfortable. In fact, some people consider MRIs to be dreaded torture chambers. But your experience doesn’t have to be entirely unpleasant. Here are some strategies I’ve adopted over the past two decades to help me survive the torture chamber.
1. Music, music, music!
As a professional musician, I have a vast assortment of soundtracks stored in my head that I “play” during the MRI scans. If I want to stay lighthearted, I might mentally play through some of my favorite horn concertos. If I want to mentally drift off with a more intense long haul, I might go with Mahler Symphony No. 5. Sometimes I might just play games and try to time songs with the estimated length of an individual scan. If the technician says, “this scan will last six minutes,” I break out a little Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.
Some MRI facilities have machines that can play music through headphones. If your facility offers this, you can create your own MRI playlist on your iPod with your favorite songs and plug it into the machine. You might want to go with calm, soothing sounds or pump up the volume with some classic 70s and 80s rock. Some facilities might ask you what Pandora station you’d like to listen to. Just don’t move to the beat or get your hips swinging and swaying.
2. Dress comfortably.
I can’t stress this enough. I usually wear sweat pants (no metal, warm and cozy) and a short-sleeve T-shirt. For the ladies, I recommend you go ahead and get comfortable — ditch the bra. If you are an underwire lady, you can’t wear the bra anyway because of the metal. Although tennis shoes are allowed, I usually take them off and wear socks just to keep my feet warm.
3. Use a blanket.
You may be offered a blanket before the MRI. Take it. The room can get cold when you can’t move. I like to keep my hands under the blanket but my upper torso uncovered because it can also get a little warm inside the machine. Many MRI machines will have a little air blow across your face. That helps to keep you cooler and reduce feelings of claustrophobia.
4. Stay hydrated.
In the days before the MRI, make sure that you are drinking enough water. It will help the MRI technician find a better vein for the gadolinium injection and reduce the chances you get “cotton mouth” during the procedure, which can become uncomfortable. Avoid coffee the morning of the MRI and be sure to empty your bladder multiple times before getting settled on the table for a couple of hours.
5. Keep limber and reduce pain.
If you don’t have a daily routine of stretching, start now. Keeping your muscles and joints relaxed and limber will help keep you feel more comfortable during an MRI scan. If you experience spasticity or pain, don’t forget to take your medication. Tell the technician if you need extra supports under your legs, cushion under pressure points, or other supports to make you more comfortable.
6. Stay calm.
It’s understandable to be nervous before and during an MRI scan. Talk to your doctor if you feel anxious or claustrophobic. Anti-anxiety medication may help you to relax. If at any time during the scan you are uncomfortable, SPEAK UP! Let the technician know what the problem is so that together you can find a solution. Some people even meditate or fall asleep during an MRI session.
7. Keep eyes closed.
Looking at the inner surface of the MRI machine right in front of your face can be disconcerting for some people. I like to keep my eyes closed. I take out my contacts ahead of time to avoid dry, sticky contacts afterward. I know people who take a thin handkerchief to lay over their eyes to help them relax during the MRI.
If at any time you become unduly uncomfortable — too hot, cold, anxious, need to shift the position of your legs, etc.— press the button you are given and talk to the technician. If you’d like your technician to let you know when you’re halfway through, let him know. If you’ve hung on until the end of a sequence when the MRI machine is quiet and need to get some good swallows in, just mention it so that the technician can wait until you’re good and ready to continue.
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