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Top Tips on How to Handle an MRI Scan if You are Claustrophobic

written by: Dr. Kristie Leong • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 7/10/2010

If you are claustrophobic and fear enclosed spaces the thought of an MRI scan will bring you out in a cold sweat. Follow these top tips on how to deal with MRI and claustrophobia so that you are ready for your scan.

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    Getting an MRI scan can be an unsettling experience – especially if you suffer from claustrophobia. If you fear getting an MRI scan, you’re not alone. Up to ten percent of people have a fear of MRI scanning that's related to claustrophobia. Fortunately, there are ways to handle it. Here are some tips that will help you get through an MRI study without fear or panic.

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    Understand the Procedure

    An MRI uses radio waves and magnetic fields to take a “picture” of the body. Some people fear that they’re being exposed to radiation during an MRI scan. Unlike a CT scan or an x-ray, you're never exposed to ionizing radiation during an MRI scan.

    During the procedure your upper body lies in a long cylindrical tube that is open at one end - and you're never completely enclosed at any time. If you look down at your feet, you can see outside the scanner - and your lower body lies outside the scanning tube throughout the procedure. You’ll feel cold air blowing through the tube at all times to keep you cool and comfortable. You’ll also have access to a rubber bulb you can squeeze if you become claustrophobic or frightened during the procedure. This alerts the technician to immediately stop the scan.

    Spend some time viewing photos of MRI scanners online and read about how an MRI scan is done. When you get to the center, ask the technician lots of questions before the procedure. Knowing how MRI scanning is carried out will relieve some of the anxiety, especially if you’re claustrophobic.

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    Ask for Headphones

    Music is relaxing and makes it easier to handle an MRI scan if you’re claustrophobic. Since an MRI machine is noisy, you’ll be given headphones to block out the sounds. Ask if you can bring in a CD to play during the procedure. Choose some relaxing new age music, close your eyes, and envision being on a beautiful beach or in the mountains on a cool summer day. Think of the MRI scan as a time to relax!

    Vera Playa, southern Spain 

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    Keep Your Eyes Closed

    Keeping your eyes closed during the scan, especially if you’re listening to music is a very effective technique for reducing anxiety. Resist the urge to peek and see what’s going on. MRI scans are pretty monotonous anyway.

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    Bring Along a Friend or Family Member

    Having someone there during the procedure helps to ease fear and anxiety and reduce claustrophobia. Most imaging centers don’t mind if someone comes into the scanning room with you. Have the person touch your leg occasionally during the procedure to show you you’re not alone.

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    Other MRI and Claustrophobia Tips

    Keep in mind that you’re still in control. If you squeeze that little rubber bulb, you’ll be released from the tube. If you’re severely claustrophobic, ask your doctor about taking a sedative before the procedure. An open MRI where you’re not enclosed is also an option if you’re extremely anxious. The availability of open MRI scanners has expanded in the past few years with most moderate sized cities having an imaging center that offers open MRI scanning. Ask your doctor about this.

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    Image Credit

    Photo of Vera Playa in Almeria, southern Spain by Paul Arnold