Managing Claustrophobia During Medical Procedures

Don't Let a Fear of Enclosed Spaces Keep You From Getting a CT Scan

MRI scan
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If you suffer from claustrophobia, or the fear of enclosed spaces, you may be afraid to undergo some important medical tests, such as a CT scan or a MRI. For this reason, claustrophobia can actually be dangerous.

A wide variety of medical tests and procedures may trigger claustrophobia. But, rather than avoid these tests and put your health at risk, you can learn how to successfully manage your fear.

 

Claustrophobia Is Different For Everyone

Like any other phobia, claustrophobia may be mild or severe. Some people are afraid only of extremely tight enclosures, while others become uncomfortable in crowded rooms or in roller coaster restraints. In extreme cases, sufferers may be unable to completely close a bathroom or kitchen door.

Why Medical Procedures Trigger Claustrophobia

Many medical procedures require that you stay extremely still. Actual or simulated restraints may be used to keep you still and the treatment site sterile. Plus, certain procedures - such as CT scans - involve sliding into a hollow tube on a gently moving table.

For many claustrophobia sufferers, MRIs cause the most fear. The procedure requires that you lay virtually immobile in a tight, loud chamber for up to an hour. A typical MRI chamber is much bigger and more imposing than a CT tube, and the typical scan time is a lot longer, too.

Managing Your Claustrophobia 

Despite your fear of a CT scan or an MRI, medical procedures are an important part of life. It's extremely dangerous to neglect your health due to a phobia, and you may need professional assistance to manage your claustrophobia if it's keeping you from getting medical tests.

If your fear is mild to moderate, there are several steps that you can take to prepare yourself for any medical procedure.

  • Tell your primary care doctor about your phobia. He or she can help you prepare by explaining an upcoming procedure in detail and letting you know what to expect.

  • Ask to see the equipment in advance. For many people, just seeing the machine and how it operates can help to reduce anticipatory anxiety. You may even be permitted to lie on the table or watch a technician turn on the equipment.

  • Inquire about distractions. Some facilities now provide music, soothing images or even movies for patients undergoing anxiety-producing tests. A few even go so far as to recreate a peaceful beach scene or other pleasant environment within the testing room.

  • Ask about chemical sedation. Some doctors prescribe mild tranquilizers for certain patients undergoing these procedures. Of course, this will depend on your personal health history and the requirements of the particular procedure. Many doctors will not provide anything stronger, such as general anesthesia, although this opinion may vary through the medical community.

  • Discuss alternatives. Some facilities now offer "Open MRIs," which eliminate the closed chamber. You'll still be enclosed, but you'll have access to fresh air and light. If your fear is not severe, this type of MRI may be tolerable. In addition, alternative types of imaging procedures may be acceptable for some conditions. Discuss the risks and benefits of possible alternatives with your physician.

Claustrophobia responds extremely well to treatment and management procedures. If your claustrophobia is impacting your life, it's important to seek the advice of a qualified mental health professional. With some effort, you can successfully overcome claustrophobia and get the CT scans, MRIs and other medical tests you need.

Sources:

Fact Sheet: Claustrophobia. Better Health Channel. Government of Victoria, Australia. October 2007. 

Garcia-Palacios, Azucena, Hoffman, Hunter, Richards, Todd, Seibel, Eric, Sharar, Sam. "Use of Virtual Reality Distraction to Reduce Claustrophobia Symptoms during a Mock Magnetic Resonance Imaging Brain Scan: A Case Report." CyberPsychology & Behavior. 10(3): 485-488. June 10, 2007. 

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