Getting an MRI with Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

What You Need to Know

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Has your doctor ordered an MRI for you? If you have fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, there's a few things you should know – and do – before you go in for this test.

An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan is used for a lot of different things. It helps doctors diagnose soft-tissue injuries, spinal problems, vascular abnormalities, gastrointestinal problems, and diseases or abnormalities of the brain.

It's unlikely that you'll need an MRI for a diagnosis of fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, unless your particular set of symptoms is similar to that of a neurological illness that can only be eliminated by MRI.

You may also need an MRI at some points to diagnose an injury or a different illness. Before that time, there are some things you need to know that may help you get through it with less of a symptom flare.

Several of our symptoms can make an MRI, especially of the brain, difficult, including:

With proper planning, though, you may be able to alleviate a lot of problems.

What is an MRI?

An MRI uses magnetism and radio waves to send images of structures inside your body to a computer. When you get one, you lay on a bed that slides into and out of a tube around which there's a big donut-like structure that holds the magnets.

During the test, the magnets spin around you and loud sounds send radio waves through the body part being scanned. It's not a quick test — it can last anywhere from 10 minutes to more than two hours, depending on what the scan is for and how much of your body they need to look at.

Getting an MRI with Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

I don't want to make you afraid of getting an MRI, because if your doctor orders one, there's probably a very good reason for it.

However, I went in unprepared and regretted it.

I'd had a brain MRI before and barely remembered it, other than the loud noises. That was years before fibromyalgia hit, before I'd ever had a panic attack. I was also fairly thin. My prior experience with it gave me a false sense of security and it didn't even occur to me that it would be a problem.

Let me explain the process: first, I lay down on the bed with my head inside of a cage-like contraption. The tech had me put in earplugs and then packed soft pillow-type things around my head so it wouldn't move, then closed the cage over my face. There was a large rectangular opening that I could see and breathe through.

An assistant asked if I wanted a towel over the mask. I said no because I thought that would make it claustrophobic. Ah, the irony. I didn't even think to close my eyes.

Next, the bed slid inside the tube and my open eyes saw how close the top of the tube was. Then, the soft sides of the tube seemed to swallow my midsection, using gentle pressure to hold my arms and abdomen in place.

In my left hand, I held a squeezy thing like what's used for blood pressure cuff that they set I could signal with if I needed to come out of the tube. Every time I inhaled, the back of my hand pressed against the top of the tube, confirming how little space there was around me.

My heart started racing as anxiety kicked in and, after a few seconds of trying to catch my breath, I squeezed the ball. They took me right out and the assistant went to get my husband from the waiting room.

Once I was calm enough, they put me back in — and this time, my eyes were closed. I focused on my breathing and tried to get into a meditative state, which is what usually saves me from anxiety, but with loud blatting sounds bombarding me, that was unsuccessful. Instead, I switched to reciting things that I had memorized over and over to give my brain something to focus on.

Meanwhile, my husband kept his hand on my leg to comfort me. I managed to get through the 20-minute process, but oh, was I relieved when they took me out of the thing.

There's no way I could've safely driven myself home. I hadn't planned to have my husband there, but because of an earlier dizzy spell, I'd asked him to drive me.

I spent the rest of the day shaky and frazzled, and about the next 36 hours with extra pain in my arms and shoulders. In a way, I was lucky. My fibromyalgia is in remission and I only have a few lingering, mild symptoms.

I can imagine, though, what it would have been like when my fibromyalgia was bad.

MRI Considerations for Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

I should have done several things differently and I can also see several things I would have needed when my fibromyalgia was worse.

  • I should've taken anti-anxiety supplements before the MRI. The one I prefer is theanine, but I've also had luck with DHEA and inositol.
  • I should've taken a few seconds to mentally call myself before going into the tube.
  • I should've said yes to the towel over the window in the cage, or at least kept my eyes closed.

For those with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, a few other steps could make this less of an ordeal, as well.

The first thing you should do is let your doctor know that the test could be a serious problem for you. Some facilities have MRI machines with different designs that are quieter and less confining. Your doctor may know of one or, with a few phone calls, you may be able to find out if there's one in your area. (Be sure to check on whether your insurance will cover it!)

If that's not an option, here are the next steps to take:

  • If you have anxiety issues or claustrophobia, talk to your doctor when he/she orders an MRI about medication options. Some doctors may give you an anti-anxiety drug like Xanax (alprazolam) or Valium (diazepam). Managing your anxiety should also help minimize problems related to noise sensitivity.
  • For people with severe anxiety or claustrophobia, sedation might be an option. Make sure you discuss this with your doctor and the facility ahead of time. Don't just show up and ask to be sedated. Not all facilities offer this, either.
  • For anyone with hyperalgesia or allodynia, pain medication before the MRI may make it more comfortable for you. (If you're also being sedated or taking something for anxiety, make sure to check that your pain meds will be safe.)
  • Arrange for a ride! Even if you're not sedated or heavily medicated, you might not be able to drive safely afterward.

It's also a good idea to let the staff know of any concerns you have before the scan begins. They may know of other ways to help you get through it.

Other Medical Tests

A lot of different medical tests and procedures can trigger symptoms in us. It pays to be forewarned and forearmed!

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