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Claustrophobia and the MRI Machine: 8 Coping Strategies

Daisy Mariposa has a B.A. from Montclair University in New Jersey and two occupational certificates from California colleges.

MRI Procedures Are a Big Problem for Claustrophobic People

For anyone who's anxious or claustrophobic, the idea of feeling trapped in the small, loud space of the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine is daunting, to say the least. For some, the anxiety may even be a deterrent to having the procedure, as fears may seem to outweigh the benefits.

Don't let your fears control you. During the past 24 years, a severely claustrophobic friend of mine has undergone approximately 30 MRI procedures. He's had plenty of time and opportunities to develop a bag of tricks to help him cope—tips that he shared with me and that I'll share with you here. In this article, I will discuss those tools for how to manage your claustrophobia and tips that will be useful to anyone who has to undergo an MRI procedure, especially for the first time. If you need more information, I will also provide a list of helpful resources at the end of the article.

Coping Techniques: How to Survive an MRI Machine When You Are Claustrophobic

My friend suffers from acute claustrophobia. Here are some of the coping mechanisms he uses, things that may help anyone manage their anxiety:

  1. Go to the MRI facility at least a week before the procedure and have the MRI technician roll you into, and then back out of, the machine. Then you'll at least know what you're in for. (Be prepared to wait until the radiology technicians have a break between scheduled patients.)
  2. No MRI facility will give you a sedative or administer anesthesia upon request. Anesthesia, which would make you completely unconscious during the procedure, or a sedative, either via an IV or pill, must be ordered by your physician at the time the MRI is scheduled. You should schedule an MRI at least a few weeks in advance if you are going to receive a sedative or anesthesia, since the former requires the presence of a registered nurse and the latter an anesthesiologist. My friend has used the sedative delivered intravenously, with positive results. My friend recommends having an intravenous sedative since the sedative begins acting immediately, whereas there is an unpredictable delay with pills which varies from person to person.
  3. Have the technician agree to roll you out for, say, 30 seconds between scans. This gives you an encouraging break from being in the machine. The technician will point out that it's important not to move any part of your body while you are out of the machine.
  4. You might be able to bring a friend. My friend has his girlfriend hold his hand during the procedure when using an open MRI. (Anyone in the MRI room also cannot have metal objects on or in them.) Or, for a tunnel MRI, she lays her hand on his lower leg. This gives him reassuring contact with the "outside."
  5. He also has her give a "countdown" by tapping his hand (or leg) with the number of minutes left in an image; e.g., three taps means three minutes left for the image and three minutes until he can be rolled out. (There is a digital clock counting down the remaining time on the outside of the machine)
  6. Some people find it useful to "preview" the noises they will hear in the MRI machine. Kent Williams (also known as "chaircrusher") of Iowa City, Iowa, uploaded some MRI sounds on February 12, 2010, for you to preview. These sounds can be downloaded to your computer and transferred to an MP3 player or a Kindle.
  7. Some people shut their eyes for the entire procedure—this doesn’t work very well for my friend.
  8. My friend went so far as to simulate the MRI experience at home by lying in a small space while listening to MRI noises. Whatever it takes to desensitize you to the actual MRI experience is worth it.

Tunnel vs. Open MRI Machine

The following are pictures of a typical tunnel MRI machine and an open MRI machine. It is important to note that even though the open machine might appear to be less claustrophobic, there is less space from the tip of the patient's nose to the top of the enclosure in an open machine than in a closed one.

Open MRI machine

Open MRI machine

What Happens During an MRI?

Rest assured that the MRI is a simple, painless diagnostic tool that uses magnetic fields and radio waves to "see" what's happening inside without the use of X-rays. MRI procedures have been performed for decades now. The process is safe, painless, and has no known side effects.

Knowing what will happen ahead of time will also help you prepare yourself. Although no one can predict the future, most MRI scans follow the same protocol.

The MRI Procedure

Because the "m" in MRI stands for "magnetic" and the machine employs a strong magnetic field, no conducive or reactive materials should enter the machine, so first, you'll be asked to remove all metal items from your person. The radiology technician will also inquire about metal in your body—this may include dentures, pacemakers, cochlear implants, permanent tattoos, shrapnel, etc. Some items may disqualify you from having an MRI, so discuss this with your doctor beforehand. It should be noted that dental implants do not disqualify a patient from having an MRI.

Next, you will be asked to lie down on the MRI table. You may be injected with a contrast dye to make the arteries in the examined part of your body appear more clearly. If you are getting the contrast dye, you will be asked not to eat or drink for a specified number of hours before the procedure. If you're getting a brain MRI, a "catcher's mask" will be placed over your face. This "mask" has built-in antennas to detect the signals coming from your brain and retransmit them to the machine to construct an image.

After these preparations, you will be rolled into the machine. This can be particularly alarming for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. Upon request, some facilities will give patients a "panic button"—a switch you hold during the duration of the procedure with a button you can press if you panic and wish to be rolled out of the machine. Some tunnel MRI machines have a small mirror that allows you to see down the length of your body and out the opening of the machine. At some facilities, you can choose to wear the headphones provided to listen to music during the procedure.

Having answers to these questions—what preparations will be needed, will there be a panic button, a mask, a mirror, or headphones—will help you feel more in control.

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Read More From Youmemindbody

Loud MRI Machine Noises

Although newer machines make less noise, an MRI scan can be extremely noisy. Even if you're not anxious or claustrophobic, you'll likely be surprised by the loud clanging, bumping, and knocking noises that the machine makes when you're inside. It is standard procedure, however, for the MRI technician to offer earplugs to the patient prior to their being rolled into the machine. If you are claustrophobic, you'll need to know about this noise ahead of time so that you won't panic.

Helpful Resources

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI Scan)
MedicineNet.com
William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR, Chief Editor

Medline Plus
"Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a large magnet and radio waves to look at organs and structures inside your body. Health care professionals use MRI scans to diagnose a variety of conditions, from torn ligaments to tumors. MRIs are very useful for examining the brain and spinal cord."

MRI Scans: All You Need To Know
MedicalNewsToday
Written by Peter Lam
Reviewed by William Morrison, MD
Last updated January 4, 2017

MRI: Magnetic Resonance Imaging
Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles, California

MRI scan (for readers in the UK)
NHS choices

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: With an MRI of the brain, will most of the person's body be inside the tube?

Answer: It depends upon the height of the person. If the person is 6' tall, about 75% of the person's body will be within the machine.

Question: I'm getting an MRI done of my kidneys. Will my head or feet go into the tube first?

Answer: Since I am not a radiation technician, I cannot answer your question. If you have been scheduled to have a kidney MRI, perhaps you should contact the facility at which you will have the scans and ask someone there. I do know, however, that persons having abdominal MRIs usually go into the machine feet first.

Comments

Denise Elfenbein on March 11, 2019:

I agree with Darla Sue Dollman. I have to have an MRI for breast and I have had two MRIs before and they are nightmares! All of the things that are said above Do not work for me. My doctor is prescribing Xanax and I am not sure if even that will help me.

Darla Sue Dollman from Alice, Texas on January 21, 2018:

I have severe claustrophobia and appreciate the care you would take to provide advice to people suffering from this condition, but talking to "a friend" about how it feels to try and hold still inside a tube for 90 minutes is not the same as experiencing it yourself. It is a living nightmare. The noise alone is enough to drive one insane--even with earplugs the pounding is absolutely unbearable for someone with is already crawling out of their skinwith fear. This article is detailed and informative, but as far as claustrophobia is concerned, it would be more helpful if the information and advice came from an actual medical professional because some of the details are incorrect. 1) In the past ten years that I've dealt with this health issue I haven't found one facility that allowed anyone else to be in the room with me during the MRI. They are allowed to accompany the patient, but they wait in the room with the large window along with the technicians. 2) Hearing the sounds and seeing the machine is nothing compared to the experience of sliding inside a tube and trying to remain still for 90 minutes--it really does not help to check out the machine in advance. This advice is often provided by the hospital, but I have never met anyone who found this helpful when dealing with claustrophobia and MRIs. 3) There are many types of MRIs and this article only addresses two. There is now an open MRI that allows the patient to sit while the machine moves in on the sides like two wings. Unfortunately, the image is insufficient for problems with the brain and other issues, but for other purposes it's as easy as sitting at the breakfast table. The problem is finding a facility that has this machine; getting approval from insurance; and making sure the image will be something the doctor can actually use. 4) For people with severe claustrophobia, anaesthesia is the best option, but it has to be approved by the insurance company first. Unfortunately, they generally require the patient to try the MRI without anaesthesia or with mild sedation a few times first and these failed attempts actually increase the claustrophia. The only answer to this problem is to continue working on developing a machine that does not require a pounding sound that feels like a jackhammer is being used on your body. A machine that takes quality images without closing the body in like cheese in a sandwich.

amie hawks on August 14, 2017:

Thank you for posting this! My first MRI in about an hour and I did the exact same thing your friend did (simulate at home)

Nancy Hinchliff-author on August 04, 2017:

I know how you feel. It takes my breath away to even read your comment. You would think they could come up with something better by now. But even the open one bothers me.

Vickie on August 04, 2017:

Great article!

I just had an MRI today, on my knee and shoulder, in a smaller tunnel MRI.

I had one of my knees done and coped well, as my head was still outside.

I was feeling reassured, then I got turned around and my shoulder placed in the stabiliser, all ok.

Then the technician started putting me inside and the MRI touched my shoulders! I totally lost it

Stacy P on May 19, 2017:

On my 3rd MRI. First was bad, not knowing what to expect and learning in moment, so next time went to sedative, which worked out well. Also helped tremendously to have empathy from technician. Last night I failed to complete my 3rd MRI. I know coping mechanisms, I've previously used alphabet and sang so that had each letter as 1st letter I tittle to think of songs. But last night was awful. Drugs made me groggy but thats it. technician was all about business, left his compassion home. Truly made this experience AWFUL. I'm scheduled tomorrow for open. Still plan on sedative because I don't know and must get MRI...

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on May 04, 2017:

Judy Lovett,

Thanks for posting your question. You asked about finding a facility with a helmet that is larger, so your son's head will fit. If your son's physician has ordered an MRI for your son, the physician should find a facility with the appropriate equipment.

I'm not a member of the medical community and cannot answer your question. I have not heard of MRI machines that use a helmet with the procedure.

judy Lovett on May 02, 2017:

How can my son have one where the helmet is larger so his head will fit, tried 3 different ones and he is in bad shape and needing it done asap

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on November 13, 2016:

Nancy,

Thanks for reading my article and adding your comment. I appreciate your responding to the question posted by Nevet Smith, one of my readers.

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on November 13, 2016:

Nevet,

Thanks for reading my article. The physician who orders your MRI has to decide whether you need a sedative. That individual will decide what type of sedative you might need, and which specific one. Readers of this article cannot answer your question. Only your physician can.

Nancy Hinchliff on November 13, 2016:

Nevet, Ask your doctor. Every body is different, so if you get your answers from commenters, they may vary widely and may not be right for you.

nevet smith on November 12, 2016:

Hi, Could someone tell me what intravenous sedative works the best. I am extremely claustrophobic and doctors routinely want me to use the closed end mri machine. Thanks Nevet

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on September 13, 2016:

Mika,

I'm so glad my article has helped you and many others deal with the anxiety of undergoing an MRI procedure.

Mika on September 13, 2016:

Thank you...Thank you!!!

I'm going in for an MRI in about 4 hours from now and the anxiety that I am feeling is almost overwhelming. It's on the open machine so I'm hoping that this experience will be better than my first try in the tunnel. Reading this hub has provided reassurance and really good (useful) tips. I have the Valium prescribed by my doctor just for this procedure and now all I need is to buy a sleep mask right after work. Wish me luck...

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on August 26, 2016:

Linda S.,

Thank you for reading my article and sharing your MRI experience with other readers. I hope you have fewer problems involving your rescheduled MRI.

Linda S. on August 25, 2016:

Well, seven years ago I had my first open MRI and did fine. Hubby was there, hand on my leg, steadying any fears I had. Yesterday, I went in for a follow-up, and freaked out. Hate to admit it but I was in the machine for a total of maybe 5 seconds and wanted out....now. I think it was due to a lot of things, but I rescheduled for a few days from now, and here is what I plan to do to prepare. Put one of those nose bands on my nostrils so I can BREATHE unfettered (I was stuffy yesterday from allergies), take xanax or valium BIG TIME (what ever dose my doc says is safe), have hubby there (of course - helps tremendously!), pick out some good distracting music to listen to, and really TRY to keep my eyes closed. It is hard to keep your eyes closed, and I commend those of you who are able to do it. I feel vulnerable with them closed, but maybe that is what I will need to do. Don't know how it will go, but I'll let you know in a few. Hope I can do this. I'm also afraid to drive over tall (very tall) bridges....go figure......:(

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on July 20, 2015:

Chitrangada,

Thanks for reading my article and adding your comment. Undergoing an MRI procedure is not a fun experience, but the test is an important diagnostic tool.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on July 20, 2015:

Excellent hub and so very important too!

I have been there, done that! And it was some twenty years ago . Thank God nothing adverse was diagnosed. I can relate to it. I thought I would never come out of that hole.

A very useful and informative hub indeed and a must read.

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on February 02, 2015:

Levertis Steele,

Thanks for reading my article and adding your comment. The only problem about which I'm aware with falling asleep during an MRI procedure is that one might move.

Levertis Steele from Southern Clime on February 02, 2015:

I always thought that I was claustrophobic until I had my first MRI in a tunnel machine, followed by two more in the same. I fell asleep in the first one and nodded in the other two. The last machine was noisier than the first two, but drowsiness helped it to be less bothersome.

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on January 14, 2015:

Linda (Sunshine625),

Thanks for reading my article another time and adding your comment. I would hope an MRI would not be necessary, but if it were, speak with your physician about having a sedative such as Versed (midazolam) administered intravenously. This procedure has helped my friend endure his twice-yearly MRIs.

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on January 13, 2015:

I recently had a CT Scan for the first time. I was claustrophobic for a few seconds, but it passed because it's just a large donut. But, my reaction was proof that I would panic in an MRI. No doubt about it.

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on July 20, 2014:

Sally,

Thank you for reading my article and posting your comment. Your sister-in-law should ask the physician who orders her MRI about sedation.

Sally on July 19, 2014:

My sister-in-law has MS and frequent pain spasms. She is due for another MRI and wondered what kind of sedative would be best to help her lie still. She was not sedated during the last one and had a spasm, causing blurred results.

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on December 02, 2013:

Marcy,

It's good to "see" you again. Thanks for reading my article and commenting in it.

If you ever need to have an MRI, be certain to tell your physician who orders the scans about your claustrophobia. He can possibly include instructions about medication when he transmits the MRI order to the facility which will be doing the scans.

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on December 02, 2013:

Andy Aitch (fiftyish),

It's nice to meet you. Thanks for reading my article and posting your comment.

If a patient is extremely claustrophobic, the person should notify their physician of the fact, so the physician can transit appropriate instructions to the MRI facility.

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on December 02, 2013:

Audrey (vocalcoach),

Thanks for returning to read my article another time. I replaced one of the tunnel MRI photographs with a better image, and I added two photographs and two videos.

I'm sorry that you're going to have an MRI soon, but I'm glad that my article and everyone's comments have been a help to you.

Will you have to drive very far from Idyllwild to the MRI facility? My friend lives in Orange County, California. Even though there are MRI facilities closer to home, he drives 65 miles to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. It's one of the top five hospitals in the country, and he feels better going there for the scans.

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on December 02, 2013:

I can so relate to this hub! I had to get a fairly routine scan recently, in a similar machine - it wasn't nearly as confining or as long as an MRI, but I truly felt the claustrophobia setting in, and I realized if I ever have an MRI, I will have to address this.

Such a helpful topic.

Andy Aitch from UK & South East Asian Region on December 02, 2013:

If this is a problem with Claustrophobia, and I can see how it would be, then surely in extreme cases the scan could be done under a general anesthetic. Like the saying goes, if you want to hit the dog, you'll always find a stick (figuratively speaking of course). I've never actually seen an Open MRI Machine. Also, where I live, they don't inject with a contrast dye, you just have to drink a big bottle of illuminous green liquid 30 minutes or so before the scan.

I think I'm reaching the age now where health related topics are becoming more interesting, hence me ending up here, but whether that's a good thing of not, I'm not sure lol :)

Andy Aitch

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on December 01, 2013:

Hi Daisy - I came back to read this again and take a look at the new images. I'm having an MRI soon and because I suffer from claustrophobia I felt that reading this hub again would empower me. It has.

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on November 14, 2013:

Tanja10,

Welcome to HubPages. It's nice to meet you. Thanks for reading my article and posting the anecdote about your MRI experience.

Tanja10 on November 13, 2013:

Thank you so much for this article but I wish I'd found it 4 days ago before my MRI for a shoulder injury.

I remember the lady who scheduled my appt. asking me if I was claustrophobic, I'd had an MRI years ago but it was a very large machine so I thought oh why is she asking me that, it's so easy....famous last words.

So, in I go and see a very small tube, my first question..am I going to fit in it and are you going to be able to get me back out! they were so calm so I thought I was over reacting, omg, in I go and the thing is inches from my face..."Keep calm, keep calm..." nope, I lasted 5 mins and had to be pulled out...then after being told you can come back and have a sedative I thought oh just do it.

I will say for me it was really mind over matter, kept telling myself to keep calm, you are okay...good advice to keep eyes closed, sing in your head, think happy thoughts, kept telling myself your legs are hanging out so they can pull you out ...I had ear plugs in and after 20 mins was pulled out, I was actually almost asleep...now I know what to expect, hope I never have to have another one though.

The technician told me, with a straight face, they had never had someone panic before, then another said people do all the time.

Daisy Mariposa (author) from Orange County (Southern California) on November 12, 2013:

loveofnight,

Thanks for reading my article and adding your comment.

Loveofnight Anderson from Baltimore, Maryland on November 12, 2013:

More than useful and very well done.This is a very informative hub. One thing that I will agree with you about is the clanking noise, that is what I found to be the most distracting along with having to stay absolutely still, while you feel a very warm pressure as if you have to go to the rest room. The doctors said that it was expected to be felt (a side effect of sorts). none-the-less no matter how uncomfortable it got the job done.