MRI Tips to Keep You Calm During Your Next Scan

Prepare and Minimize Discomfort

A patient enters an MRI scanner.
A patient enters an MRI scanner. Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

Being rolled into a coffin-like, narrow tube that makes loud, banging noises where you can't move a muscle is no one's idea of fun. No wonder most people dread MRI scans! But they are a necessary part of diagnosing and monitoring your multiple sclerosis (MS). Researchers and doctors consider them to be one of the biggest breakthroughs in the MS field, as they give a chance to “look inside the brain” in a way that was never possible before.

But again, the procedure itself can certainly be an unusual, loud, and even scary experience for someone who has never had an MRI. It can cause anxiety even in the seasoned pros. Anticipating and understanding what to expect during an MRI will help you through the scan, and these MRI tips can help make your MRI experience as stress-free as possible.

When Your Doctor Orders Your Scan

Ask your doctor what he will want to see on the MRI: the brain, all or part of the spinal cord, or the entire central nervous system (from top of the head to tailbone). If your doctor wants a scan of the whole thing (which is likely if this is your first MRI or if an exacerbation is suspected), you may be asked if you prefer one or two sessions. Here are some things to consider when deciding:

  • Doing the whole thing at one time may take up to two hours.
  • If you split it up, the sessions will be shorter each time, but you will have to go to two appointments and will have to receive gadolinium (contrast material) more than once.

    In addition, if you have tattoos that you got more than 20 years ago, these might cause discomfort or distort the MRI image. Back then, there were metal components in tattoo ink (and metal is incompatible with MRI machines). Discuss this with your doctor to determine if this might be a problem. He or she may tell you to alert the MRI center, but it's a good idea to start with your doctor.

    What to Do on Your MRI Scan Day

    Before you leave home on the day of your MRI appointment, keep these things in mind:

    • Don't wear jewelry. Leave all of your jewelry at home, unless you want to spend time taking it off once you arrive.
    • Avoid wearing metal. Some MRI centers allow you to wear your own clothes (instead of a hospital gown) during the scan, as long as there are no metal buttons, snaps, or zippers. Keep this in mind when dressing: Wear a t-shirt and elastic waist pants or shorts.
    • Dress for heat. Dress lightly or in layers that you can remove easily. It can get very hot in the MRI machine, especially in the area you are having scanned.
    • Bring socks. Your feet will be sticking out of the machine and your MRI center may or may not provide socks.
    • Consider a sports bra. For women, a sports bra (with no metal underwire) may help you feel more comfortable. Otherwise, you'll have to be without a bra in the machine.

    When you arrive at the MRI center, before the scan, remember to:

    • Take a cough suppressant if you need one. Coughing within the machine may result in having to start the test over again if you move your head. For some, not being able to cough invariably brings on the urge to cough. Make it easier on yourself and take an OTC cough medicine.
    • Ask for a sedative if you'd like one. If you are claustrophobic, or very scared of the procedure itself, do not be afraid to ask your MRI tech for a sedative. Explain that you are feeling anxious and think you need one.
    • Protect your port. If you have a temporary intravenous port for Solu-Medrol administration, request that it not be used for the gadolinium. MRI techs love the convenience of the ports, but the gadolinium is caustic and could collapse the vein, meaning your port will have to be reinserted.
    • Ask for a blanket if the room is cold, as well as earplugs and music if they aren't provided. Once you're in the machine, there's no moving or stopping. So ask for everything you need or may need beforehand. While the machine does get warm, if the room itself is cold or you tend to feel cold, have a blanket placed over you. Earplugs and headphones are standard protocol at most MRI centers to help block out the loud noise of the machine, but if your tech forgets one or the other, remind him. You're going to wish you had these things once the test starts.

      What to Do During the Scan

      • Use the mirror—or avoid it at all costs. There is usually a small mirror positioned above your head, which is tilted so that you can see outside of the machine. Some people find this extremely comforting, and others find it disorienting. Check it out and decide which camp you fall into. If you don't like it, just keep your eyes closed.
      • Practice creative visualization. Picture the most pleasant, relaxing place that you have ever been. Imagine that you are there. Try to remember tiny details about this place. Focus on colors and lighting.
      • Breathe steadily and regularly. Count your breaths up to 10, then count backwards. Repeating this is so relaxing that I have actually almost drifted off to sleep during the scan.
      • Use mantras or prayers. Repeating a positive affirmation or empowering phrase, such as "All is well" or "I am safe and strong" can help induce the relaxation you want to feel in the machine. If you have a favorite prayer, now is the time to recite it in your mind.

      After the Scan

      You made it! You're home free. Now there are only a couple things left to do. First, drink lots of water. The gadolinium contrast dye needs to be flushed out by your kidneys, and drinking extra water can help speed up this process. Secondly, go ahead and give yourself a treat. Get a massage, have lunch with a friend, or buy a light novel and get lost in the story. If you're too tired for any of that, have a hot bubble bath and go to sleep early. You've earned it.

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