Earlier this week, I had a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) head scan (without contrast) at MK Hospital in Milton Keynes, UK. I was fairly apprehensive in the run up (cue thoughts of being “trapped” in a long tube and having to break out and wriggle to freedom…) but it was OK in the end. Partly I think this was because I needed to have the procedure done (and therefore if I didn’t do it, I’d have to go back again!) but also some of my concerns were addressed by reading around [active researcher mode] to find out more about what was going to happen.
Some of the tips out there are helpful (see below) but I am aware that some people are claustrophobic (and may need an open or seated MRI if the area you’re having scanned is appropriate and it’s feasible) whilst others don’t realise that they are going to feel this way (it’s not everyday that you have to lay very still in a noisy tube for a while) until the procedure is underway. I was advised by the MRI clinic that GPs can provide meds to help with this prior to a scan, if needed.
So what happened?
I was asked to fill out a form (about previous operations and whether I have any metal in my body that might interfere with the machine) to bring along, and need to wear clothing without metal (e.g. leggings, non-underwired bra, t-shirt etc) if possible. No worries if you can’t though: you’ll change into a gown at the start of the process. I signed my form when I arrived and it was reviewed by myself and a technician before I got ready for the scan in the changing room. My bag went in a locker and the key was with me in the scanning room (on a hook in there).
The MRI technologist sits in a room with a viewing window into the room where the MRI machine is. The type of MRI machine being used largely appear to depend on the hospital/clinic (reading round, some posts recommend – if the clinic offers this and you are very anxious – you visit the MRI clinic beforehand to see the machine and familiarise yourself with it). You’ll go in with the technician and they’ll help you get onto the tray/bed that slides into the MRI machine. I’m mega short sighted (see below) and at this stage I had to remove my glasses. My knees were slightly raised (using a bolster cushion) and my head was in a head rest. The technician put in my ear plugs and then the headphones (for music, see below). As my head was being scanned I needed to wear a guard/attachment over my face (this felt less strange than I thought it would; it looks a bit restrictive on pictures but felt OK).
As I was being pushed in the machine I decided that I needed an eye mask (I had brought one with me but then left it in the changing room!) so the technician sorted me out and then I was slid into the machine (yes, it feels a bit weird but it’s over in a moment). My head was in the middle of the machine and I had to lay VERY still. Shortly after I went into the machine, and once the technician had left the room the scan began. The machine makes lots of different loud noises as it takes photos of whichever bit of you is being scanned. I had a call button in my right hand so I could stop the scan at any point. My scan took around 15 minutes and the MRI technologist spoke to me at the end (you can still hear through the headphones and plugs) and let me know it was finished.
Alas I couldn’t take away a photo of my brain. Apparently I can have a copy once the images have been reviewed etc. but not before (I guess this is obvious really as they don’t want “Dr Google” doing an ‘analysis’ and then worrying!)
What helped? What did it feel like?
So, a massive thumbs up to the following (NB. I cannot take credit for these ideas – eyemasks, oils, listening to MRI sounds – as they came from others and these are just my experiences of using them. Once I’ve found the sources for some ideas, I’ll update… sadly some of these are lost in the midst of late night searching in ‘private’ mode!):
- Along with others, if possible I’d recommend listening to what the MRI machine sounds like on You Tube (yes, it’s ca. 30 minutes long but worth listening all the way through to the end!) It definitely helps to get used to the different sounds the machine will make. Yes, it will be loud. Yes, you will hear most of it over the music/radio + ear protection. But it will be familiar rather than scary.
- Ask for (or bring along) an eye mask (I was worried I might feel claustrophobic if I had the option to open my eyes whilst in the machine and I couldn’t trust myself to not peek!). Moreover, I’m very short sighted and, as you can’t wear glasses in the MRI machine, the head attachment mirror (which enables you to see outside the machine and is there to help with feelings of claustrophobia) is of pretty limited use to me as everything is blurry anyway. The mask helped a lot although I think I had my eyes semi-open for most of the procedure even with the mask (somehow this was more relaxing than completely closed for me). FYI, as above, I was allowed to keep my glasses on until I laid down on the machine.
- Bring a CD if you want to listen to something in particular (and they have this option rather than the radio or a music choice). I went with Motörhead and channelled the spirit of Lemmy ; )
- I find the smell of lavender relaxing so placed a tissue with lavender oil on my chest. Not very metal, I know. I may have not been channelling the spirit of Lemmy so much at this point.
- It does feel a bit weird (my eyeballs felt quite strange at one point!) and toward the end of the cycle the machine vibrated nosily at a couple of points. This doesn’t last for long though (NB. the vibration bit was near the end of the session for me, so if you can get through that you don’t have long left in the machine to go…. hang in there). It’s also worth noting that you should check you’re relaxed when you’re first placed in the machine (not always easy, given what’s going on). I realised I had my jaw partly clenched half way through the scan and then had to maintain this (not very easy to do) as I didn’t want to move (and possibly then have to do the whole thing again). Again, might be worth practicing being as loose and floppy as possible/relaxing beforehand, a some people suggest.
- Finally, if you do know anyone who has had an MRI scan, it’s useful to get their perspective too (thank you lovely peeps!). I also found it useful to speak to someone at the MRI Centre before my appointment. I’m pretty sure they’ve heard/seen it all before – as always, no question is a silly question.
Information and blog posts I found useful (NB this list is incomplete and I’ll add to it as I re-find information):
- NHS Choices MRI Scan
- Read a bit more about the science and history behind an MRI (pretty amazing)… In 1977, when the first successful MRI was performed on a human, one image took 5 hours to produce (read more). Phew!
- This post suggests “square breathing” as a way to control your breath and reduce anxiety.
- 10 ways to get through an MRI or CAT scan if you’re claustrophobic