5 Ways to Have a Better MRI Experience With MS
Probably no one enjoys having an MRI, but the experience can be made more bearable.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Samuel Mackenzie, MD, PhD
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Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are commonly performed to establish a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) and to monitor its progression over time.
MRIs use strong magnets and radio waves to create images of internal structures of the body. An MRI scan of your brain and spinal cord can reveal lesions, or areas where the myelin that normally protects nerve fibers has been damaged, that are typical of MS.
Over time, repeat MRIs show your doctor whether you have developed additional lesions and whether existing lesions have enlarged or otherwise changed.
Most healthcare professionals recommend that people with multiple sclerosis receive annual MRIs to track the disease's progression and to assist in making treatment decisions. Evidence of new or growing lesions, for example, may indicate that a change in treatment is needed.
RELATED: 13 Tips for Getting the Best MS Care Possible
Before You Get an MRI: Safety Issues
Before you get an MRI, you and your doctor need to make sure this type of scanning is safe for you.
The powerful magnets used in an MRI machine mean that metallic items, including some implanted items and devices, need to be kept out of the scanning area. If you have a pacemaker, metal aneurysm clips, cochlear implant, or some other devices, therefore, you may not be able to have an MRI, or the test may need to be modified in some way. Such issues should be discussed before you schedule the exam.
As part of your safety discussion, you should let your doctor and the MRI technician know if you have any tattoos. While not all tattoos rule out having an MRI, tattoo inks that contain metal such as iron can heat up and cause burns during an MRI. This is of particular concern if a tattoo is located near the eyes, but any burn causes pain and discomfort.
A tattoo located over the body area being scanned can also distort the image, making it difficult or impossible to interpret.
Again, this is an issue that should be discussed ahead of time.
If you are pregnant, you may be advised to delay getting an MRI. Scans are generally not done during the first trimester and are only done during the second or third trimesters if the benefits appear to outweigh the risks.
How an MRI Is Done
If MRI has been deemed safe for you, you will need to wear clothing with no metal zippers, hooks, snaps, buttons, or decorative elements, and you will need to leave any metal items, such as a watch or jewelry, outside the MRI room. You may be asked to wear a hospital gown to make sure your clothing has no metal.
People with MS or suspected MS are often injected with a contrast agent (sometimes referred to as a “dye”) containing the chemical element gadolinium before an MRI. The gadolinium helps to identify active inflammation in the brain. Some people experience a headache, nausea, or dizziness for a brief time after the injection.
During the scan, you’ll lie on a narrow table that is slid into the tube-shaped opening at the center of the MRI machine. You’ll be instructed to lie still because movement can blur the images.
An MRI can take anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes, depending on what body area is being scanned and how many images are taken.
Sidestepping Anxiety and Claustrophobia
The confined space and often dark environment in older MRI scanners often caused feelings of claustrophobia. Newer machines tend to have larger openings and better lighting, and the tube itself is open on both ends, helping to reduce claustrophobia.
But even with the most modern equipment, having an MRI can cause anxiety. What can improve the experience?
1. Take a Sedative, if Needed
“The calmer you are and the less you move around, the quicker you get in, and the quicker you get out,” says Matt Gonzales, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010 at age 20.
Gonzales had a severe relapse in 2012, when lesions occurred on his spine. He’s been through so many MRIs as a result that he can’t even recall how many he’s had. But he does remember the anxiety over his first MRI, because he has mild claustrophobia.
“They offered me a sedative, but I’m stubborn, so I didn’t take it,” he says. He prefers to focus on relaxing, staying still, and getting the test done as quickly as possible.
Taking a sedative is an option, though, if MRIs make you very nervous. Speak to your doctor before your MRI if you feel you need a sedative to get through the scan. Keep in mind that if you take a sedative, you will not be able to drive right after your MRI and will need to arrange for a ride home.
2. Block the Noise
An MRI is a loud experience. Gonzales likens the bangs and buzzes of the machine to a construction site. While he doesn’t mind the noise, many people do, but luckily, there are a number of ways to reduce it or take your mind off it.
Foam or Silicone Ear PlugsEar plugs are available at low cost at most drugstores. Practice inserting them into your ears before your MRI.
Noise-Canceling HeadphonesRegular commercial headphones cannot be worn during an MRI, but some MRI facilities have noise-canceling headphones you can wear during your scan.
MusicSome facilities offer the option of listening to music during your scan, and you may even be able to bring your own music on a CD, MP3 player, iPod, or other device. If you wish to bring your own music, ask whether the center can accommodate that when you schedule your MRI.
3. Close Your Eyes and Visualize
“If patients are claustrophobic, I advise keeping eyes closed, because if you open them, you see yourself in the machine,” says neurologist Zulma Hernandez-Peraza, MD, of the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago.
While your eyes are closed, it can help to visualize yourself in pleasant surroundings, such as a beach, forest glade, or any other place you associate with feeling happy and calm.
Some MRI scanners have a small mirror positioned over your eyes, so you can see out of the tube. For some people, this also helps with claustrophobia.
4. Bring a Friend
Having a friend or family member with you in the room can be helpful, says radiologist Mary Ellen Bentham, RT, supervisor of MRI at the University of Florida Health and Shands healthcare system.
That person will need to leave any metal items and clothes with metal parts outside the room, and anyone with a cardiac pacemaker cannot be in the room during an MRI.
Generally, your friend can sit or stand next to the MRI table during the scan.
Children should always have a parent or other caretaker with them during an MRI.
5. Talk to the Technician
Although the technician isn’t there to chat, you can certainly reach out if you’re feeling uncomfortable or anxious during the test. The MRI machine will have both a microphone and a speaker inside it.
Additional reporting by Ingrid Strauch.
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