How to Deal with an MRI When You’re Claustrophobic
MRIs are an important medical procedure that many of us need, sometimes on a semi-regular basis. Unfortunately, most of the time, they take place in an extremely enclosed space, which makes it hard for those of us who suffer from claustrophobia. But they don’t have to be horrific experiences if we learn some simple tips and tricks to make them more bearable. Here are the tricks I use to get through my MRIs.
I know, it might sound a bit counter-intuitive because how can you sleep if you're freaking out from being in a small tube? A tube so thin you can touch the sides with you elbows as you lie there and your nose is almost touching the top, except that a fake football helmet-looking faceplate is over your face. So how do you sleep? You just do. While on one level it's terrifying, it's also tiring and boring. On top of that, the fear might give you an adrenaline rush, which, when it fades, also leads to sleep. So lie back and take a cat nap. You won't miss anything, and the loud clanging of the magnets is actually restless in some weird way.
Meditation can always help when you're feeling stressed. If you have enough warning for the MRI, you can always download an app to learn how to meditate or buy a book. If you don't have time, the quick version is this: breathe. Focus on your breath. If other thoughts or feelings, like fear or anxiety, crop up and try to derail you, just favor the focus on your breath. You can just tell yourself, "I am feeling (x), but nos I am breathing." Always focus on your breathing.
Keep your eyes closed
Again, this may sound silly or obvious, but I know that when I open my eyes, everything seems (and feels) a whole lot closer. If I lie there with my eyes closed, then I can imagine that there is more than an inch between me and the tube. It can make all the difference in the world: the feeling of space. It also helps to meditate and sleep if you have your eyes closed, so you can let the methods of dealing with the experience merge together and make it a nice, relaxed “time out” instead of a stressful hour in a tube.
Know that you can get out
While the techs don’t want you to get out because then they would have to start over, realize that you can in fact get out. You aren’t truly trapped. If it helps, you can even repeat to yourself “I can leave anytime.” Knowing that you don’t need to stay, that you can choose to escape, can really help relieve the stress that builds up from feeling stuck. In many cases, the tech will give you a bulb to squeeze as an emergency out. If you begin to be completely overwhelmed, squeeze it. No one will think less of you, and you may be able to reschedule or find an open-air MRI or be sedated. (See more of those options later…)
Ask for "time"
Two times that I’ve gone for MRIs, the techs there have offered to give me “time.” I don’t mean that they gave me an hour; instead, they will announce how much time I have gotten through or how much time is still remaining. For example, last time I was in the tube, the tech would tell me, “This next set will take about five minutes.” That simple announcement let me feel like I was still in touch with the outside world, and it helped me pace myself. I knew that I could make it just five more minutes, and the, when he announced the next time, I again told myself I could make it through that time limit. Being able to break it down into manageable chunks is a great way to deal with what may otherwise feel like a really long time – it’s hard to tell just how long you’ve been in there otherwise, and, for me, it’s easier to panic if I lose track of how long I’ve been in there.
When I was little, I had a horrible time falling asleep at night. My father used a trick on me, and now I use it, by telling me to just count. When I babysit, I tell the kids I’m babysitting for that if they can make it to a number (let’s say 200), then I will give them a prize. So far, I’ve never had to pay out. There is something about counting that is relaxing. You don’t need to think about it, and the repetition can help you zone out and forget what it is you’re doing. It also works well if you are getting “time” from the tech; you can estimate how much longer you have, and if you’re counting slowly enough (one Mississippi, two Mississippi), then you may be pleasantly surprised when the set is done sooner than you expected!
MRI with Contrast
MRI with contrast does sometimes add another layer to the problem of being in the tube. For me, and for a few people I’ve talked to, the contrast dye has a taste to it. Now, it’s not like you drink it; they inject it into your IV. But after it’s been injected, I start tasting something like burning plastic in the roof of my mouth. I’ve had multiple doctors and techs tell me that it doesn’t do that, but I can assure you that for me, it does. When I have to have the contrast, I ask them to take me out of the tube and give me a minute to deal with that taste. It lets me relax and try to center myself before going back in. Do be careful, though – they generally don’t want you to move because they need to take the same pictures in the same positions so that they can compare with and without contrast to make sure there isn’t a serious problem.
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If all else fails, there are open MRIs or sedation. Open MRIs are meant to get rid of the problem of claustrophobia by being, well, open! Depending on what you need done and where you live, you may be able to find a specialty MRI clinic that offers them. Another option is sedation. You can sleep through the MRI. The only problem is that insurance doesn't always cover those two options. If you’re using private insurance, be sure to check ahead of time or you may get a nasty surprise when the bill comes. Of course, if none of the methods work to help you get through the MRI feeling safe and secure, then it might be worth the money to check out sedation or open MRIs.