What Is It Like to Have an MRI?


Back in February, I injured my shoulder skiing. The details of the event are not important – say, that I had skied that trail a hundred times and it was just a product of the slighest mis-step – but the incident ended with extreme pain. I took a hard fall and landed all of my 185 pounds onto my left shoulder. It was the worst pain I had felt. My arm was rendered completely useless; it hung from my side to the point where I had to have someone help remove my jacket for me.  That is, once I managed to reach the bottom of the trail, which happened to the 1980 Olympic Giant Slalom course; continuing down the trail without the use of one arm may not have been the best decision in the world.

Immediately after the event, I went and had X-Rays at the local hospital – no bone breaks, no clear dislocation. Over the course of a few months, I regained some strength and pain was gone; I thought I was okay. Then one day, I reached up for something and realized that I had limited mobility in my left arm. If I were to stick my arms straight up above my head, my left arm can only go up about 80 percent of the way.

Two doctors' visits later, I was ordered to have an MRI. There was concern that, even six month later, I did not have full strength or mobility restored to my left arm. The doctors feared it was a SLAP tear.

Yesterday, I followed through with the MRI/arthrogram. I have to preface this story that I am not fond of needles and, though not particularly claustrophobic, I can be a bit fidgety.

First, one of the doctors cleaned my wound and injected my arm with Lidocaine, a numbing agent. I was told this might hurt; it didn’t quite hurt so much as I felt pressure inside my shoulder, an interesting feeling indeed. That was followed by an injection of a dye used to identify the tear, if one existed. I felt nothing on this injection.

I was then walked over to the area for the actual MRI, and by this point, my left arm felt like it was just kind of… hanging there. It felt like there was little to no tension in my muscles, but I guess that was to be expected after injecting the numbing agent.

Then, it was time for the MRI. I laid on the bed and had my arm secured. I was told it would take roughly 35 minutes and that I was not to move. If I felt like I had to get out, I was given an emergency button to squeeze.

35 minutes, how bad could it be, right? I was given some headphones with some pop music playing and I closed my eyes. My logic was that, 35 minutes of pop music, that's roughly 10 songs. I can survive 10 songs, no problem.

The first few minutes were okay. Just lay there, eyes closed, try to stay calm. We're three songs by. Four songs by. And then the machine starts getting really loud, drowning out the music. That's fine, I tell myself, no big deal.

At one point or another, I started to concentrate on not being nervous, a terrible situation to put yourself in. I bumped my right arm (the free one) into the side of the machine – I am literally pressed up against the wall of the machine. I opened my eyes and realized that the top of the machine was no more than 10 inches away from my face. What if I had to sit up for something? What if I had to cough? Clear my throat? Just had to get up for some reason; I wouldn't even be able to sit up straight Now, the anxiety started to kick in. Calm down, I told myself. But now I concentrated on being calm. I was fidgeting significantly and now, as ridiculous as it may seem, I had to go to the bathroom. And now I had to concentrate on not having to go to the bathroom on top of concentrating on not being nervous.

10 more minutes came over the headphones. 10 minutes. I could do this. Can I do this? I was fidgeting pretty significantly now. I was trying to convince myself that I wasn’t nervous, that I wasn’t concerned, not claustrophobic (which I'm not, generally) and, most of all, that I didn’t have to go to the bathroom. I could wait 10 minutes, right? Right?

3 ½ minutes to go…

And then I moved too much so they had to redo the last 3 ½ minutes.

But I survived. I made it.

Took a deep breath and moved on. I may have been soaked in a cold, nervous sweat. But I survived.

In all seriousness, it wasn’t that bad. You psych yourself out of it more than there is any actual concern. Like I said, I fidgeted a little, just not with the arm that they were scanning, and there didn't seem to be any problems. That said, it really does resemble a coffin – the top is mere inches from your face and you are more-or-less immobile inside this tube. Of course, 35 minutes isn't really that long in hindsight. Do I want to do it again? Certainly not. But could I? I'd like to hope so.