What’s it like to have an MRI Scan?

I had an MRI scan this week. It was my third time in an MRI scanner and if I’m honest, it’s not the most fun thing in the world. As part of what is turning into an occasional series of ‘medical things which have happened to me, explained in non medical speak’ here is my MRI Scan story.

Most people will be sent for an MRI scan by their GP or hospital consultant. My first scan was a private one which I paid for myself because no one would believe that I was in as much pain as I was, as a result I was rushed in for urgent surgery to prevent paralysis, but that’s a fun story for another day.

If you’re having a scan on a small area, like an ankle or elbow, your scan shouldn’t take long, maybe 15 minutes tops. I’ve previously had two scans of my lumbar spine which took around 20 minutes each. This week I had my lumbar, thoracic and sacral bits of spine scanned, it’s a large area to cover, so I was in the scanner for nearly an hour, although scans can go on for as long as 90 minutes if you’re getting everything scanned. Around 15 minutes is the average though.

My advice would be eat and drink normally before your MRI scan, maybe tone down the amount of liquid you consume, you don’t want to be dying for the loo while you’re in there. My other piece of advice would be take off all unnecessary jewellery before you leave the house. I removed earrings, nose stud, necklace, bracelet, wedding ring and my watch, not only does this save time, but it stops you worrying about them being pinched. You can’t wear anything metal while you’re in the scanner. This includes your bra, but you can take that off in the changing room.

You’ll be allowed to keep your normal clothes on. As jeans are out (metal studs, rivets and zip or buttons) leggings or jogging bottoms are a good and comfortable option. The temperature in the scanner can be all over the place, my head and feet were freezing, but my body found it almost intolerably hot, so dress lightly but with good thick socks.

You’ll be asked to complete a short safety questionnaire and they’ll double check that you don’t have any medical conditions or metal in your body before you start.

They will then take you into the scanner. You lie down on a table, they can provide a pillow for your knees if like me you’d find that more comfortable. They gave me a panic button to be used if I got into any difficulties and they put some headphones on me. This was to protect my ears from some of the banging, and for the first 15 minutes I was played some awful local radio station. I actually preferred the horrible banging.

The scanner is a fairly tight metal tube and you are encased in it. The table will slide up or down every few minutes so they can scan a different section. It is tight and claustrophobic, but you can cope with it. I promise.

When the radiologist leaves you and you feel the table start to slide into the tube, it is best to close your eyes and not open them until you are out of the scanner at the very end. This stops you seeing just how claustrophobic it is, so you shouldn’t panic as much. It is tight and you have to remain perfectly still throughout the scan.

There is a camera above you, so the radiologist can see your face throughout and you have the panic button. They can talk to you through the headphones if they need to and usually they let you know when it’s over too.

While you’re in there it’s best to try and distract yourself, your nose will itch and you can’t scratch it, if you’re familiar with meditation now is a really great time to practice. Lie still, breathe calmly, eyes closed, thinking happy thoughts. What might interrupt this will be the banging. This is very loud and alternates between quite pleasantly rhythmic to “borrower trapped in an alarm box”, it can be a bit frightening but it is perfectly normal.

Do distract yourself with happy or amusing thoughts. I planned some holiday activities, thought about some boots I’m going to buy and during desperate moments imagined a large glass of red wine gradually filling as each minute passed. It helped. One thought which kept coming back was “how bonkers is this? I’m stuffed in a metal tube, I can’t move and I’m listening to an inept steel band warming up”. That helped too.

My MRI scan went on for much longer than I’d anticipated, so I was very near the end of my tether when I got out. I did survive it, and although I don’t know the results of my scan just yet, I know that having a scan has saved me in the past, it’s not something I look forward to but if you plan a mental strategy for dealing with it you will be ok. Close your eyes, think happy thoughts, buy new boots, find out what is wrong with you so they can fix you.

If you’re going for an MRI scan, read the information sheets they give you carefully, take out that piercing you got on holiday in Thailand, lie back and think of England and for gods sake keep your eyes closed. It’ll be over before you know it and it will make a real difference to your treatment. Good luck, you’ll be fine.

MRI Scan