inside of an MRI machine

How to Survive Your MRI Scan

Tips to turn ‘diabolical’ into ‘delightful’

Aside from skydiving, I’d never seen such a comprehensive waiver. 

When you arrive at a clinic for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, there’s a checklist you have to sign.

There is a full two A4 pages with checkboxes.

  • Do you have a pacemaker?
  • Shrapnel in your body?
  • Bullet wounds?
  • Metal dental fillings? 
  • Metal fragments in either eye?
  • Do you have a hearing aid?

I imagine putting a fork in the microwave. I’m going in the microwave. The questions continue.

  • Cochlear implants?
  • Neurostimulators?
  • Heart stent?

Last one.

  • Are you claustrophobic?

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The Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine (MRI) is a multi-million dollar deep scanner that uses powerful magnets and radio waves to take photographs of tissues and organs. I think I’ve had about 9 scans.

There was a time when I swore I would never have another MRI. That was after a dreadful experience in regional Australia.

Here’s something you may already know. As impressive as that machine looks on the outside is equal to how uncomfortable it is on the inside.

*

I step into the bright room. I’m wearing a one-size-fits-all tablecloth. 

The room looks like the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey

.A smiling radiologist approaches. “You’re listed for the gadolinium contrast.”

“Oh, hurrah!” Of course, being injected with dye is the highlight of my calendar week. My heart starts racing.

“It might feel like you’re wetting your pants,” the chirpy radiologist says as I I feel a needle puncture my vein. “But you’re not.”

Brave New World.

Velcro is strapped around my body in three places, like a parcel being sent by FedEx.

“Try to stay as still as you can.”

Bars are clipped over my head. For the safety of myself and others. I feel like Hannibal Lector.

Headphones are slapped on at the last moment. Then I start rolling into the plastic sarcophagus.

It is a cramped, coffin-like tube. If it were glass, my breath would be fogging it.

The machine kicks into action. It’s like Luna Park without the fun. The slow-moving orbit of discordant technology — banging and clashing without rhythm.

It’s loud even with the headphones. They are not noise-cancelling, just noise-slightly-reducing.

If you have multiple sclerosis, you will be familiar with all of this.

MRI scans are used to diagnose MS and keep track of any new lesions.

Getting an MRI scan is always a confronting experience. Like a splash at a winter beach, it’s bracing.

Every single time I slide into that tube, the same panic follows me inside too. And that’s okay. It’s allowed to come in, as long as it doesn’t stay.

The first few minutes are the key. The panic will come, that wily fox, but he won’t stay for the whole hour. He’ll only stay for as long as you let him. So have a face-off. But don’t let him stay. 

The technology has improved dramatically over the last fifteen years. The last time I had an MRI it was not stressful but mostly relaxing. I could have stayed longer.

How do you relax in an MRI?

Easy. Here’s my advice.

Close your eyes

The kind staff will probably tell you to close your eyes, but I always peek. I can’t help it, I like to play with fire. So have a peek if you must, but make it quick. 

Close your eyes as soon as the platform starts rolling. Honestly, I was never claustrophobic before my first MRI, but it made me become so. Apparently, this happens to lots of people. And MRI scans take a long time. They can be 90 minutes or longer.

Practice Slow Breathing

If you’re into meditation, perfect. Do that. If you’re not into meditation, get into breathing.

By that I mean breathe slowly and deeply. Big deep satisfying lungfuls. The slower the better. Two things will happen. The experience becomes a mindful one, not a panic-stricken one, because you’ll have something to focus on. Secondly, it will send oxygen to your brain and make you feel good.

Slow breathing helps me do all sorts of things. Like city driving. Stressful work meetings. Difficult phone calls. Every time I feel rushed or lack control, use the breathing trick and slow it all down.

Ask for classical music

If you’re given a choice of music, I recommend classical. Otherwise, the default is always commercial radion including ads for fast food and tire shops. Classical music is akin to meditating, so that’s my go-to.

Listen to the other symphony

You’ve got headphones on, but you can still hear the noise and it will be LOUD. The cacophony is not a fusillage about to explode. That noise is precision engineering all working for you. 

Pay attention to the sounds. Listen to the distinctive jobs each percussion instrument performs. Your little factory of tin people on their glockenspiels and cymbals. Tap tap tap tap. There’s even a conductor who leads them in.

Listen with a sense of detached observation. Is it a melodrama? A musical comedy? An opera? I have heard goppa goppa goppa goppa, and suckitup suckitup suckitup suckitup. It changes each time I have a scan. It’s a unique performance for you.

Mindful ‘Me Time’

The most recent MRI scans I had were totally different from the first few I had decades ago. When they were finished, I felt deeply relaxed and may have fallen asleep inside the tube. 

When you have a busy life with a business and kids. You don’t get much Me Time.

MRI isn’t exactly fun, but it is what it is. You can’t avoid it. So enjoy it, I say,

This is your time. There’ll be no lunches to make or phone notifications pinging you. For one brief snatch of time, you’ll have zero responsibilities. 

Other people will have to work, but not you. Your job is to lie there and breathe. It’s your chance to daydream. 

Daydreaming makes for seriously creative and productive time!

Parting words

For a while there, I found insomnia useful because that was my thinking time. I could solve creative problems, plan kids’ birthday parties, and tackle work issues. The answers would come and be ready for the morning.

In many ways, MRI scans give us those same opportunities. A simple mindset shift will see you enjoy the Me time, relax deeply, and maybe even solve a few domestic problems. Or global ones. 

The technology has finally improved the inside user experience. 

Now I call my MRI scans the time for My Radical Insights. And I’m looking forward to the next one! It’s time to daydream. What could be more delightful?

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