A Detailed Description of What to Expect During an MRI Scan

A Detailed Description of What to Expect During an MRI Scan
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A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan can be an odd experience for those who have never had one before. Knowing what to expect beforehand can calm the nerves, so this week, I’m sharing what my first MRI was like.

For people with multiple sclerosis (MS), frequent MRI scans are crucial to tracking whether treatments effectively reduce brain and spinal cord lesions. The results inform neurologists’ treatment strategies.

While I was hospitalized and hunting a diagnosis, radiologists fed me into various boisterous, buzzing, machine monsters that I’d only ever seen on hospital dramas like “Grey’s Anatomy.” I had no idea what they were and the hospital staff didn’t exactly calm my nerves.

I remember my first MRI like it was yesterday. The MRI scanner was in the car park. Yes, you read that right — the car park! I was 22, and a porter who looked younger than me wheeled me there. Seeing the MRI scanner for the first time was strange enough that my anxiety spiked the moment I passed through the door.

I transferred to a bed, about to be fed into the scanner, while the radiology team placed a tall cushion beneath my knees and a squeezy ball in my hand, then covered my ears with headphones. The radio was on and playing my favorite song — nice! Then it got a little weird. They slotted my head (with headphones still attached to my ears) between two pieces of stiff foam and placed a cage over my face. I was super confused by it all but trusted they knew what they were doing.

I’d never felt so claustrophobic in all my life. I shut my eyes, tight.

“We just need to inject you with some contrast so we can see what’s happening,” mumbled the nurse who’d placed the headphones on me. Contrast improves the clarity of internal bodily structures in the images taken by MRIs. I’ve had contrast a few times now and only had one bad experience, when a nurse didn’t inject it properly.

“There will be some loud noises. Don’t worry. Squeeze the ball if you need us at any point.” They droned through the headphones as though they’d already said it a thousand times that day.

The bed drifted backward, slowly fed into the machine as it began to emit rumbling sounds. I focused hard on the music playing through those headphones, my eyes still tightly shut. An electric-type pain shot through my limbs as I grew more stressed. That pain wasn’t from the MRI, but rather from my MS.

The angry machine monster groaned and jutted. It was like being in the engine of a jet plane. It was so loud, even with the headphones. Every so often I’d hear, “Two minutes for the next image.” “This one will be 10 minutes.” “Another three minutes.” I think I was in my first MRI for nearly two hours.

I’d never wanted to scratch my nose more in all my life. When told not to move, it’s laughable how much I suddenly want to scratch my nose or cough or sneeze. In my MRIs, I almost always have some kind of muscle tremor that breaks my stillness.

“Sorry, I think you moved on that one. We’ll have to do it again.

Ugh. I sigh and roll my eyes beneath their closed lids.

I kept telling myself, “Focus on the music. Count the sounds. It won’t last forever.”

Do you do that? Count the sounds? I know many people who do. It really helps to calm the nerves.

When it was finally over, the radiologists pulled me back out and took everything off of me: the cage, the headphones, and the cushions. My eyes blinked repeatedly to adjust to the bright lights. I think it would be so nice to come out of an MRI scanner and be greeted by a piña colada. That hasn’t happened yet. Fingers crossed for next time.

Radiologists never tell me the results then and there. Instead, they send them to a neurologist, who either calls me or discusses them during my next appointment. In the future, I may not need a full MRI scan. Who knows?

At the end of an MRI, I like to give myself a treat. Most often, that means picking up a pizza on the way home — my favorite. Do you have a favorite treat after appointments?

Read about the different ways MRIs guide the care of a person with MS here and here.

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Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.

Jessie is the host of the DISabled to ENabled podcast and author of the “ENabled Warriors Symptom Tracker” book. She’s also an illustrator working with MS charities and magazines worldwide. She’s interviewed paralympians, radio DJs, chronic illness bloggers, marathon runners, and more. Jessie, based in the U.K., was diagnosed with MS at 22 years old and was told by a doctor to “go home and Google it” to find out what MS was for herself. Her own experience of being newly diagnosed so young was negative and scary, so she fills the internet with positivity for other anxious MS Googlers to stumble upon.
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Jessie is the host of the DISabled to ENabled podcast and author of the “ENabled Warriors Symptom Tracker” book. She’s also an illustrator working with MS charities and magazines worldwide. She’s interviewed paralympians, radio DJs, chronic illness bloggers, marathon runners, and more. Jessie, based in the U.K., was diagnosed with MS at 22 years old and was told by a doctor to “go home and Google it” to find out what MS was for herself. Her own experience of being newly diagnosed so young was negative and scary, so she fills the internet with positivity for other anxious MS Googlers to stumble upon.

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16 comments

  1. Andy B says:

    The things I wish I knew for my first time…

    1. When they ask if you’re claustrophobic, they’re asking if you want medication.
    2. With Ativan, I sleep through the whole thing. I couldn’t imagine that even being possible the first time I ever had a scan.
    3. An eye mask works wonders.

  2. Dan says:

    Fortunately, I have not experienced claustrophobia or been anxious during an MRI. I actually hear music in the throbbing and incessant “beat” of the MRI, or at least imagine how it could be some industrial heavy metal music. I usually select something loud and heavy to listen to while it is going on. Surely someone has created instrumental music inspired by the sound of an MRI machine.

    So I listen, and zone out to the clamor, and usually can keep still for the entire session. I could even imagine dozing off!

    I’ve do get nauseous from the contrast, and I’m glad that seems to be something they are phasing out these days.

    My post-MRI treat is a nice ice cream. Despite everything, I feel I deserve the treat.

  3. Seth says:

    I was totally fine with my first mri and all the subsequent ones. I was concerned for children who need them. Im any event, just try to relax. They’re not so bad.

  4. Catherine says:

    Hi Jessie, this is interesting as I have had slightly experience. For years I was always have MRI’s in the main hospital building but then last year I had one in a car park. It was a very different experience as the whole unit that housed the scanner shook, whereas it’s still in the hospital building. I didn’t know the scanner would shake and freaked out. I insisted they re-book the scan and that I have it within the hospital building – which happened a month later. Also, I never get to hear music while the scan is happening but I do count down the time. I also always have the urge to scratch an itch!

  5. Susan Fryc says:

    I
    Understand the scariness of being in an MRI for the first time. I’ve had MS for 18 years this April.
    We are fortunate in this country to have such sophisticated things to help with everything medically.
    I had to learn early to be positive every day and move forward! I am my biggest motivator.
    It’s hard, but to have a MS support group and MS friends to rely on, is very helpful.
    I hope the person who conversed of her experience, learns to appreciate every day. We are lucky in America.

  6. Drian Lobo says:

    One thing You’ve gotten wrong is that, it isn’t the radiologist who does your MRI but the MRI technologist. Radiologists interpret the images obtained.

  7. Ruben says:

    MRI’S are the worst nightmare for me ,I have problems breathing when I’m flat in my back ,and to maket even worst, I’m Claustrophobic. The only MRI I can tolerate is a Seating or standing one.unfrtunately they are only available in very few places,and not near where I live.

  8. Caroline timms says:

    Hi I’m a mother of a daughter of 22 years my daughter lost her eyesight just before Christmas to the fact she was in hospital for over a week on steroids and had scans plus steroids on home coming after going back to the neurologist appointment who never really said nothing about the diagnosis of probable ADEM bilateral visual loss and homonymous hemianopia untill my daughter had the letter saying what it was and another appointment in July this year also she had another scan with contrast after all the treatment to see if the white blob that the eye specialist showed us on her first MRI scan. The neurologist never showed my daughter the scan only the eye specialist and never explained anything about this ADEM thing.
    Inwhich I have looked up and regards to children website also features ms. My daughter stuffed and still does with tremors when she was in her teens to the fact we had quite a few appointments with different hospitals and doctors but without much success of any diagnosis until now when she had that experience of eyesight loss. She at the moment is doing well but being a mother of a daughter how wonts to lead their own life it very difficult to understand the diagnosis of all of this can you help at all thank you.

    • Jessie Ace says:

      Hi Caroline, I’m so sorry to hear about everything you’ve both been going through. If it helps, I interviewed my own mom on her reaction to my diagnosis. You can listen to it by going to http://mmini.me/dtepodcast I hope that helps. All you can do is to be there to support her as she goes through this. It will get better in time.

  9. Fiona says:

    What a great piece. Details exactly what it’s like to have an MRI. I do not have MS but I did need an MRI when pregnant and it was the most horrendous experience. I did not know what to expect and no one explained it to me beforehand. It was all very clinical, an every day happening for the staff, but not for me. It was a totally alien experience. I’ve never felt such anxiety in my life; I was sweating and my heart was racing. I felt claustrophobic and uncomfortable. I too just shut my eyes and focussed on the music. I tried to guess the song titles and year of release. Well done for writing this piece, it’s comforting to know I wasn’t just over reacting. After such an awful time they didn’t even get the images they wanted but I refused to have another one.

  10. Joanie says:

    Jessie, your article rang so true for me as well and actually made me laugh where I could really relate. The not moving, need to itch and crazy loud noises from the machine. I have stage IV melanoma and get an MRI of my brain every 3 months. The contrast too. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

  11. Bandy S says:

    I was apprehensive the first back in 1995, but now sleep through the whole MRI. I Am more stressed after the wake me up after they finish. I look forward to every MRI as I know I can sleep through it, especially after lunch.

  12. Michelle says:

    I have had MS for 28 years now and have had multiple MRIs. I now ask for valium to take shortly before going into the scanner and sleep through it.
    I am a retired registered nurse who worked as an emergency and trauma nurse so have not only had scans myself but have sat through both CT scans and MRI scans while monitoring my patients. Someone commented that radiology techs performed the scans and radiologists read them – correct. While many techs are able to see what is happening in the scans they are performing, legally they cannot tell the patient. That would be diagnosing and that act belongs to physicians.
    Funny story. One hospital where I had a scan started using low lights in the room, beautiful pictures projected on the wall of the room (you are in a tube with your head in a cage!), and music (who could hear it over the banging, clanging, and thumping going on?!). As the tech helped me out of the scanner when the scan was finished, the music was playing and the wall showed a beautiful image of a forest. I told the tech (who was old enough to know what I was referring to) that the whole scenario reminded me of the movie Soylent Green!!

  13. J Howell says:

    The MRI machine is the best dubstep I’ve ever heard.

    Seriously, though- I get why people are averse to them, but I usually fall asleep at least once during the scans, and use the time to meditate when I’m awake during them. I wouldn’t ever go so far as to call the experience “fun”, but I try to make the most of it. There are worse things than an MRI. Your mileage might vary.

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