Traditional MRI scans are closed, rather than open. In a closed MRI, the machine will surround you on all sides, kind of like a capsule. Being all the way inside the MRI can feel difficult if you struggle with claustrophobia, since there are only inches separating your face and the top of the machine. And while you’re in this position, there are super loud clicking, rattling, and beeping noises in very close proximity to your ears.
Is it any wonder that some people feel claustrophobic in a set up like this?
What to expect before the scan
When you’re scheduling your MRI, the representative at the imaging center may ask you if you’re claustrophobic. If you say no, they will proceed with the rest of the scheduling process. If you say yes, they may give you some alternative imaging locations and appointment times where open MRIs are available.
They will likely also ask if you plan to come to your scan sedated. If you answer yes, they will caution that you should have someone drop you off and pick you up (it’s not safe for you to drive under the influence of a sedative).
If you feel concerned about having anxiety and/or claustrophobia during your test, make sure you communicate that concern to the doctor who ordered your scan. Your doctor can advise you about whether taking a sedative medication for MRI claustrophobia is appropriate for you and prescribe the medication best suited to your needs. Factor in a few days to get the prescription ordered and picked up before your scan.
Tips for overcoming MRI claustrophobia
Here are some helpful tips for dealing with MRI claustrophobia, both before and during your scan.
- Take a sedative. The doctor who ordered your scan can write you a one-time prescription for sedative medication to calm your nerves ahead of your appointment. For MRI claustrophobia, doctors will often prescribe oral benzodiazepines like Valium, Ativan, or Xanax.1 Many people find these drugs are best at relieving their anxiety and/or MRI claustrophobia. For optimal results, take your medication 30 to 60 minutes before your scan starts. (Again, please arrange for transport to and from your scan if you decide to take sedative medication.)
- Talk to your MRI technician. Communicate your anxiety and concerns before the scan starts so they know and can help if you need it. They will place a communication device in one of your hands before you go into the MRI machine. You can push the device’s button at any time during the scan to open a two-way line between you and your technician (they cannot otherwise hear you if you try to talk to them). You can let the technician know if you are panicked or feel unable to remain still for any reason. You can also chat with them for part or all of your exam, as long as you’re able to stay still.
- Ask for music. Your MRI technician will place headphones over your ears before you enter the scan. This protects your ears, but it also allows you to listen to music during your exam. Technicians can stream a Pandora or Spotify station into your headphones, so be sure to pick the artist, genre, or vibe that makes you calmest.
- Ask for blankets and socks. It can be cold in a medical imaging exam room, and may feel even colder if you get IV contrast as part of your test. The exam can take a while, so get yourself as cozy as possible (under the circumstances) before the scan starts.
- Keep your eyes closed. In a closed MRI, your face will be relatively close to the ceiling once you are fully inside. If you keep your eyes open when you enter the scanner, you may feel claustrophobic because you’re more aware of the lack of space around you. It may be helpful to keep your eyes closed for the duration of the scan.
- Use meditative techniques. Square breathing (inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4; repeat as necessary) can be a very helpful way to calm your nervous system. Repeating a mantra to yourself as you breathe (for example, I am safe on the inhale; This is temporary on the exhale) can give you something affirming to focus on.
- Mindfulness. Being mindful means being fully present in the current moment, having awareness of your surroundings, and observing your experience without judgment. It can almost be like telling yourself a story. There are loud clicking noises close to my head. The blanket is keeping me warm. I notice I’m thirsty. The button in my hand feels smooth. My back and knees are supported by this pillow.
- Nap. Okay, this one might sound a little crazy, but it is possible to fall asleep during an MRI. The machine’s noises are rhythmic, and if you’re already tired going into the scan, have taken a sedative, feel warm, and are laying completely still for an extended period of time, it can definitely happen. Hey, there are worse ways to pass the time!
When a closed MRI won’t cut it
Whether it’s because of claustrophobia or wide physical stature, sometimes closed MRIs just aren’t feasible. That’s where open MRIs come in. Instead of being enclosed in a hollow cylinder, open MRIs are donut-shaped and open-sided.2 Open MRIs can easily accommodate wide-shouldered and obese patients, and may provide more comfortable scan experiences for people who have limited mobility or are in wheelchairs. Open MRIs may also be ideal for kids and the elderly, who may need an adult near or with them during the scan.
Booking your scan
These are helpful tools to keep in your belt for any medical test or scan that may give you anxiety. When you’re ready to book your MRI, use scan.com’s easy scan search tool to find a provider near you.
iowaradiology.com: What Should I Know About Sedation for MRI?
stonybrookmedicine.edu: What You Need to Know about Open MRIs | Stony Brook Medicine