How to Survive an MRI If You are Claustrophobic

How to Survive an MRI If You are Claustrophobic


A key test for identifying multiple sclerosis during diagnosis, or to confirm a relapse, is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI.) For those who’ve never had to undergo an MRI, the thought of having this test might be terrifying. Being encased in a magnetic tube that, when operational, sends out deafening noise and requires complete stillness can be intimidating.

This is especially true for those who need to undergo diagnostics with and without contrast dye, and who also may need images of both the brain and spinal column. Remaining stone still for as long as an hour-and-a-half in a tight space isn’t a skill most people can boast! It doesn’t help that others describe the experience in ways that make it seem impossible to endure.

However, there are ways to survive it. Even a claustrophobic person (me!) has found solutions for managing the discomfort that an MRI portends.

Hear no evil

The extreme drum-like noise of the magnets inside the tube are impossible to ignore.

By now, MRI technicians in radiology labs have acquired the appropriate headgear to protect your ears and help you block out the noise. Most also come equipped with piped-in music you can concentrate on to relax.

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Whether you’ll be able to relax and forget about the noise depends on a few things.

Did you choose the right music? Once, I selected stand-up comedy, and while I absolutely found it relaxing, I also kept wanting to laugh out loud. For practical concerns, that is not optional during an MRI!

Can you hear the actual music? Sometimes it’s too soft and becomes a pointless endeavor. You can ask them to turn it up.

Use your imagination. Sometimes I imagine I’m at a concert sitting near the drum set, and the banging sounds are actual drums. They do have a rhythm, thankfully. Mind over matter can do a lot to get you through a long MRI.

Out of sight, out of mind

Claustrophobia is one of the biggest reasons why people can’t handle the MRI test. Being tucked inside a tube and asked to remain still is challenging even for someone who doesn’t have anxiety about tight spaces.

Some things I’ve tried:

Wear a washcloth over the eyes: If your vision is blocked in this fashion, then you can’t really open up your eyes and stare at the closeness of the equipment that’s mere inches from your face.

Get swaddled: When I go in, I ask to be tightly wrapped (“like a burrito”) with one of those white cotton blankets so prevalent in hospitals. Why? There’s a certain comfort in feeling “tucked in.” Heavy blankets are used by insomniacs, people with autism, and those with anxiety so they can sleep better. Getting tucked in offers the same benefits.

Also, when the technician tucks the blanket around your arms and legs, you can’t feel the machinery against your skin when they load you in for a scan. Not only that, but you can’t “break the seal” of the blanket easily, which helps prevent anxious movement.

Be the MRI

Practicing self-hypnosis or meditation or relaxation techniques inside the MRI can turn the entire experience into a calm-fest.

Yogic breathing techniques help me tremendously. Granted, stillness is a requirement, so I can’t take deep breaths without making movements. But even with ordinary breathing, you can count breaths as a way to focus attention on something besides the test. When I do this, I end up falling asleep.

I’ve also visualized golden rings of light encircling my body. I start with my toes and end with the crown of my head, each section of my body slowly melting under the imagined warmth of these rings. By the time I get to the top of my head, I’m relaxed and no longer feel my heart pounding through my chest.

Play it loose

I have issues with muscle cramping, which can be problematic during an MRI. If my back seizes while inside the tube, the only real way to relax the muscles is the one thing I am not allowed to do — move and stretch. So, I generally try to stretch to loosen up before I get in. The technicians don’t mind if you do a few stretches first if it means you’ll survive the round without having to start over again. Placing a pillow under your knees also takes pressure off your lower back.

Get a helper

When in doubt, you can request a very light relaxation medication like Ativan to settle nerves during an MRI. Make sure you also take your antispasmodic medications, if they’ve been prescribed. Stick to a healthy diet that supplies plenty of magnesium, calcium, and potassium so that you don’t find yourself struggling through charley horses midway through a scan. Even a banana right before your test can work wonders.

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.

31 comments

  1. Amy says:

    As a claustrophobic, my first MRI attempt 15 years ago was a disaster. I hit the panic button quickly and was sobbing by the time they got me out of there. Since then, I’ve been hooked up to an IV for valium while I’m in there. It’s better than everyone, since I won’t be wasting the time of the staff by not being able to complete the MRI. I’d advise people be honest with themselves about what they can and can’t handle. Asking for help is not a bad thing – it’s the best option for everyone involved in the process.

    I wish I had your suggestions before my first MRI, because I would probably have had a much better experience. Great ideas!

    • Craig says:

      Swaddled?? Are you Kidding? Obviously not, but that’s just the next level up in claustrophobia for me; trapped in the tube and bound so I can’t wriggle out. I don’t even want to wear the headphones, but they make me these days to protect my hearing. They should hear as good as I do.

      I’ve had both Valium and Ativan with no effect. I’ve tried imagining good things, golf holes I enjoy, doing square roots in my head; couldn’t keep the concentration up for any of these. The only thing that’s kept me sane is trying to count to 1,800; 30 minutes times 60 seconds. I rarely get over 100 before losing count and I’ve never gotten to 200, but somehow I know time is passing.

      • Tamara Sellman says:

        Craig, LOL
        Believe it or not, people who are extremely anxious like to be swaddled so they can sleep. There are weighted blankets for just such a purpose.

        I think it depends upon your level of claustrophobia, yes.

        For me, feeling the hardware against the skin of my arms made me anxious, so the blanket barrier between body and machine “fools” my body into not registering panic. I also usually hate anything on my face (including a blanket), but the washcloth over my eyes was more tolerable than me trying to resist an anxious peek at the head cradle just inches away.

        Imagining stuff certainly helps, and you definitely imagine some pretty boring and distracting things! LOL Counting is also a good practice, even if you have to keep starting over, if only because you can keep a rhythm and breathe as you count, and that can be relaxing against the edge of claustrophobia trying to scream its way out of your body!

        Be well!
        Tamara

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      Amy, your experience mirrors that of a couple of people I know. You’re advice is right on… be honest about what you can and can’t handle. (Although, to be fair, I think some people don’t realize how claustrophobic they are until they have their first MRI!)

      And definitely use whatever tools you can to make it possible, including medications, if that’s what it takes! The data from the MRI is so important to our disease management, it’s worth it.

      Wishing you well, and thanks for the comment!
      Tamara

    • Manpreet Singh says:

      One of the toughest thing I ever faced in life. Ya I was scared of falling into sleep and then waking up in hurry and hitting my head with machine. Never ever breadthed so fastly , never ever felt so anxious

    • I knew I was claustrophobic from previous MRI’s, and it was giving me the maximum dose of Valium that made another MRI survivable, for me. With that dose, getting through the MRI was a breeze. I also recommend ingesting some potassium, like a banana or an apple (or OTC potassium pills), because I have had some bad charley-horses. With that shot of potassium in me, I couldn’t even MAKE either leg cramp! Oh, and once I kept dozing off, and I snored! My snoring vibrations ruined the MRI. If you snore, don’t go there sleepy!

    • Tarsha says:

      Hi, I have a very hard time with MRI’s. I have asked to be sedated but in GA that’s not an option. What state do you reside in because that’s awesome they hooked you up yo an IV.

  2. I may be needing an MRI soon, and I also happen to be a little claustrophobic. The MRI is definitely an important test, so I will just need to work on overcoming my fear. These are some great tips to help. I hadn’t thought of wearing a washcloth over the eyes, but that is an easy trick that might help. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Debbie says:

    Just tried to have an MRI today and I lost it. Couldn’t do it. Need the MRI because I was in a bad car accident. Not sure if medication will help
    Need help

  4. Slynnnnss says:

    I just had an MRI and it was the first one where I seriously thought about squeezing the ball to be pulled out (have had maybe 3-4 prior years ago).

    I know I’ve become more claustrophobic as I’ve grown older and the idea of being stuck in that tube is frightening. I actually like the sounds and find them calming.

    So, I NEVER have my eyes open. That would NOT work! My mind can still “see” the confined space and once I slightly opened them to look down at the entrance at my toes out of curiosity – in flowed panic.

    I thought about counting and decided to go with visualization to calm and focus myself. I started with my happiest place and had to think about the textures and details because I couldn’t recreated the calm feeling that happy place normally brings. When I ran out of details I moved on and recreated in my mind all the rooms and details of my passed grandparent’s house. And I explored a second house I can no longer visit, room by room.

    The distraction of trying to remember and feel the details was engrossing – but I’m sad I no longer “enjoy” the MRI experience. Good luck to you.

  5. Stanley. Dvorznak says:

    I just completed my MRI, Being a big man and very clostafobic I took .05 clonapezium and Valium. I became very tired and by the time the tech hooked up the in contrast I was sleeping. I never remembered going into the tube.

  6. Ivy C says:

    I had my first MRI this morning. I do suffer a tad from claustrophobia, so I had myself mentally prepared for the tunnel. I did NOT anticipate the face cage. The technician was great about me freaking out a bit. I had to take the cage off the first time, then made it in, but freaked out when I opened my eyes. I finally got through it by:

    Trading the earphones for earplugs (take some with you if they do not offer them). I Found the earphones made my head fit too snug in the bottom pillow and made it worse. The plugs allowed me to turn my head side to side which felt better.

    Lay down and close your eyes and breathe for a couple of minutes. Just let yourself get comfortable lying there without moving, and without the cage at first. Allow the technician to snap on the cage after you give her a “thumb’s up” and request she snaps the clasp as quietly as possible.

    Tuck your arms close to your sides so you do not feel the slight squeeze at the entrance to the tunnel. I’m a chubby girl, and it worked for me. If you are larger, perhaps clasp your hands over your chest-just don’t move.

    My MRI was 8 sequences. I had my tech tell me which number we were on and how long it would last. The range was 14 seconds to 2 min 45 seconds. Then you just count until it’s over.

    Whatever you do, just do NOT open your eyes!!!!

    You can do it!

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      Yes, that cage may not be something some will expect. On the other hand, some machines don’t use it, or the headspace is so open you don’t even notice it (in the newer MRIs). Good advice, thanks for sharing!
      Tamara

  7. Kado Lewis says:

    I’m attempting to undergo an MRI for a thoracic strain after two attempts I’m experiencing reoccurring panic attacks/anxiety,I’m awaiting a call from the doc for next step traumatizing to say the least,you never know until you attempt it.

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      Kado, I hope you were able to find a solution! If you’re comfortable doing so, feel free to share your experience… so many others can benefit from what’s happened for you. Best wishes,
      Tamara

  8. Andrew says:

    I had my first fully enclosed MRI yesterday for my shoulder. The technician gave me something to put on that really helped me get through it without experiencing a feeling of panic. It was a pair of glasses with 45 degree angled mirrors on the lenses, so when you open your eyes while looking straight up you’re actually seeing the opening of the tube toward your feet. It really created a case of perception over reality and I recommend that every MRI imaging center offer the same glasses to claustrophobic patients. Had I not worn them and opened my eyes during the MRI I can’t say that I may not have hit the panic button. It’s a lot tighter in there than it looks when you’re standing next to the machine, especially when you’re strapped in and your shoulder is tucked into a restraint.

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      The glasses sound awesome! Maybe this will be standard equipment in the future for all MRI patients!
      Tamara

  9. Sue says:

    I have two MRIs coming up (head and breasts), which will be done at the same time. I am extremely claustrophobic; have been told by nurse that I cannot have an IV to be totally put out. What is the strongest med that I can take so that I am NOT aware of anything that is going on, as I just cannot tolerate knowing when I am going into the tube or even being in it.

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      Not sure I can be of much help there, Sue, that would be a better question for your MD. Everyone is different and the different kinds of sedatives and relaxants out there are becoming more strictly policed. Definitely ask them what they would recommend, and let us know what you find out? Good luck to you,
      Tamara

  10. Heather says:

    Had my first MRI today,well, attempted to have.I didn’t take the 5mg or Valium doc prescribed thinking I was able to get thru it but soon as I was sliding in,I squeezed the panic ball.Im so disappointed but going to reschedule so I can get it done because I need to have done and this time will take the meds to be able to relax.My anxiety got the best of me this time but hopefully not next time.

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      Hi Heather,
      Wishing you luck with your next MRI, I do think none of us really know how we will respond until we get inside that chamber. Now you know and I’m sure you will do much better. Let us know how it goes in round two, would you? Good luck!!!
      Tamara

  11. Abby says:

    I am so claustrophobic and I went in for a second attempt yesterday for a shoulder MRI. First one was the regular open tube and the second one was apparently an open MRI which really did not make any difference. Panicked again and lasted only a few minutes. My issue is the closeness of the ceiling of the MRI to my face and makes me feel like I am in a coffin. Reading these posts, I think if I can go in feet first and/or lie on my stomach, I will feel more in control. Does anyone know if either of these are always options?

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      That closeness is really hard to face (quite literally), I know you are not the only one who feels that way! I’m not personally aware off these position options but you certainly could ask the radiology crew if there are accommodations that might work. Good luck and do let us know what you find out.
      Tamara

    • Charlene says:

      I have had 3 MRI’s for my shoulder. I too connect handle the closeness. Feels like being in a coffin. I have to constantly move, if I don’t the nerves go crazy. I have to take a diazepam pill in order to get it done. Honestly even when I first go in I feel anxious and then afterba few minutes I am totally relaxed and I don’t remember a thing. Also don’t open your eyes, everytime I did this I would feel trapped. They will not let you go in feet first or on your stomach and being wrapped is not an option for me.

  12. Tracy says:

    I wigged out today during MRI & couldn’t do it. He slid me in a couple inches and I was like NOPE. The top of the tube was so close to my face there’s just no way. I will be rescheduling for the “big” machine.

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      It’s okay, least you have a “big machine” option! Good luck. The difference between the two is considerable; you may find the more open features of the other MRI equipment more tolerable.
      Tamara

  13. John Williams says:

    I was told by a friend that they have a stand up MRI machine in Germany has anyone else heard or experience this machine I’m severely claustrophobia

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      I’ve heard of these, John, but I have no idea if hospitals or clinics use these here in the states. Seems like a great idea!
      Tamara

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