Scared of getting an MRI? Tips for coping with this vital diagnostic tool.

Oct. 26, 2023
Many people are scared of MRIs either because they're claustrophobic or they dread the machine's loud sounds. Photo: Getty Images.
Many people are scared of MRIs either because they’re claustrophobic or they dread the machine’s loud sounds. Learning all about this valuable diagnostic tool and walking in with some coping strategies can help you stay calm. Photo: Getty Images.

Chances are you or someone in your family are among the millions of Americans who need to get an MRI.

Many people are scared of getting MRIs either because they don’t like enclosed spaces or they dread dealing with the loud sounds that the machines can make.

To help you prepare for an MRI and understand more about this essential diagnostic tool, we consulted with UCHealth MRI technologist Richard Uhlhorn.

Uhlhorn, who works at UCHealth Radiology – Colorado Center, has more than 20 years of medical imaging experience, six of them with the U.S. Army, where he was trained as a combat medic and X-ray specialist.

“I’d have to approach a dummy with a tag on it that said what was wrong with it while a drill sergeant was behind me yelling questions, and I had an M-16 strapped to my back,” he recalled.

His work with MRI patients is not nearly as stressful, and in return, he tries to calm the anxieties and worries of those who are concerned about what happens when their body is transported inside the noisy tube that comprises the MRI machine.

“MRIs are so valuable to doctors and can be a road map for clinicians, physicians and other medical staff to help a patient get healthy again,” he said, adding that he’s been long fascinated by the technological side of medicine and how MRIs offer vital clues to health providers about what can go wrong with the human body, as well as potential remedies.

MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, is a noninvasive diagnostic technique used by clinicians since the 1980s to gain more information about the human body – its aches and pains and tears and sprains in muscles and joints, as well as infections, cancers and tumors in vital organs.

With their common usage – more than 40 million scans are completed each year in the United States – we asked Uhlhorn to answer questions you might have about how this technology works and how you can both prepare for and improve your experience when getting an MRI.

What is an MRI?

The two most common MRIs are neurological ones that scan the brain and spine and ones for the musculoskeletal system, usually connected to sports injuries on knees, ankles and shoulders.

“An MRI is an amazing imaging tool to visualize soft tissue structures within your body in a non-invasive way,” he said.

Typically, a person lies on a table that moves inside a tube-shaped machine for MRIs of the brain, neck, back and shoulder. For other body parts, such as arms and legs, patients might not need to have their entire body in the machine.

How does an MRI work?

An MRI machine uses a very powerful magnetic field along with very specific computer-generated radio frequency to create images of the inside of the body.

“Otherwise, I just tell people it’s magic.”

How is an MRI different from other imaging?

In comparison:

  • An X-ray is a flat 2-D image meant to primarily look at bones.
  • An CT scan is an “X-ray plus” that can capture 360-degree images of organs and soft tissues.
  • An ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves coming from a wand that hits the body structure and comes back to the wand to create a picture.

What are the different types of MRIs?

Patients have some options when getting an MRI these days:

  • A closed MRI scanner has a 60 cm “bore,” which is the diameter of the narrow cylinder container or tube closed on both sides but open on both ends. It provides the highest magnetic strength and greatest clarity of scans, he said.
  • A wide bore MRI scanner has a 70 cm diameter and provides more headspace and wider openings than 60 cm bore scanners, and basically is a “bigger tunnel.” “It’s a much more comfortable machine and better for patients with claustrophobia.”
  • There also are open MRIs that are open on all four sides and open upright MRIs that allow patients to sit upright during the procedure. However, these options provide imaging with less magnetic strength and poorer imaging quality.

Will an MRI hurt?

No. But you do have to stay as still as possible during the procedure and be prepared: It is noisy.

How long will an MRI take?

Between 30 minutes to an hour.

Do I need to prep for an MRI?

There is little preparation for an MRI, Uhlhorn said. He advises wearing comfortable clothing that is easy to remove and no jewelry because you’ll be asked to change into a hospital gown and shorts.

You’ll also be asked to take off your glasses and remove your hearing aids. Patients with orthopedic implants can, in almost all cases, safely receive an MRI, as well as patients with pacemakers. Patients should notify the tech if they are pregnant.

As far as eating before an MRI, Uhlhorn tells patients to eat as they normally would. In fact, those who fast or skip a meal might be doing more harm than good because, coupled with any anxiety, it could make things worse if you are light-headed before the procedure. The only time he would recommend not eating is for a specific type of MRI on the abdomen, which you would be informed of well before the exam.

Is there anything I should NOT do before an MRI?

“Nope, just show up on time (to your MRI appointment),” he said.

Are there any side effects from an MRI, and does it cause cancer?

Immediately after an MRI, when you emerge from the tunnel, you might feel dizzy, he said, but technicians work with patients and have them gradually sit up and take their time if they need to.

“The magnetic field can sometimes play with your equilibrium, but it just takes a few moments to get over.”

He said a multitude of ongoing research in the scientific community has shown modern MRIs are a very safe modality, as they do not use ionizing radiation.

Why is an MRI so noisy?

One of the most memorable parts of any MRI procedure is the loud noise it makes during the MRI exam. MRI machines require a lot of electricity to operate.

“That noise you hear is electricity turning on and off through large wire cables inside the machine, making the magnetic field fluctuate.”

What if I am claustrophobic?

If you suffer from claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces), talk to your doctor when your MRI is ordered so you come to the scan with some type of sedation, such as Xanax or Diazepam (Valium).

“Do not show up for your MRI and expect your technologist to have any sedation on hand. Maybe 20 years ago, that was the case, but you must obtain that from your doctor now.”

For those who do plan on taking a sedative, it will be noted ahead of time on your chart, and you will need to schedule a ride home from the procedure before you will be released.

For someone needing more than sedation, there are instances when they will use anesthesia to complete an MRI; Uhlhorn suggests speaking with your physician if you require that level of care.

What are some coping tips if I am scared of an MRI?

  • Wear a provided eye mask or use a washcloth over your eyes so you don’t see the tunnel.
  • Use the provided headphones or earphones to listen to music during the procedure. MRIs are loud, and the music might not always be easy to hear, but ask the tech to adjust the volume so you can try and keep your mind off the “racket” that’s occurring all around you. (You are not allowed to bring your own speakers, headphones or cell phone into the exam room.)
  • Ask for a blanket if you’re cold. The exam room is usually kept at a temperature of between 62 and 68 degrees as that’s the MRI’s magnetic field “sweet spot” in terms of optimum working level.
  • Keep your breathing steady – some patients like to meditate or practice deep breathing.
  • Tell your technologist if you are uneasy and ask for updates throughout the procedure if that would be helpful. “Most techs have a sixth sense about what their patient might need to get through an MRI with as little stress as possible but don’t hesitate to speak out and tell them what you want. Some people want to be talked through it, while others say, ‘I’m good’ and end up having a great nap.”

What if I have a panic attack during an MRI?

Every MRI machine comes equipped with “a call button” that a patient holds as they undergo an MRI, which they can squeeze to immediately alert the technologist.

“It helps that patients have that control, and they can let us know if they are scared or nervous whenever they want during the MRI.”

What is an MRI with contrast?

If your doctor has ordered an MRI with contrast, a dye will be injected into your veins through an IV in your arm during the procedure. This helps visualize your vascular structure, showing certain infections or cancers. Rapidly reproducing cells uptake the contrast, which shows up bright on the MRI scan, which goes through the body in 30 seconds, he said.

Some people might have a brief metallic taste in their mouth when the dye is first injected.

How do I get results, and how long will it take to get them?

Results are usually available within 72 hours or quicker and will go to your patient health portal.

“MRIs are a wonderful diagnostic tool and play an integral role when figuring out the best path forward for your optimum health,” Uhlhorn said.

About the author

Mary Gay Broderick is a Denver-based freelance writer with more than 25 years experience in journalism, marketing, public relations and communications. She enjoys telling compelling stories about healthcare, especially the dedicated UCHealth professionals and the people whose lives they transform. She enjoys skiing, hiking, biking and traveling, along with baking (mostly) successful desserts for her husband and three daughters.