Sometimes the hardest part of getting a diagnostic imaging test isn’t actually getting the test–it’s waiting to receive your results. Google will feed you a ton of technical information about diagnostic imaging tests and scans like MRIs, CTs, PET scans, X-rays and ultrasounds – what they are, how they work, what conditions they can diagnose. But when it comes to the in-between time—the period between the test itself and getting your results—there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much information.
Full stop: medical limbo is hard. Waiting is hard. Here’s some helpful information regarding typical wait times for diagnostic imaging results, as well as some tips to help you manage anxiety and practice self-care while you wait.
How long does it take to get your medical imaging results?
Imaging results, like those from a CT scan or MRI, can turn around quickly–sometimes within 24 or 48 hours. In other cases, for a variety of reasons, it could take longer (on-site vs. off-site radiologists, imaging center operation hours, center-to-doctor communication, physicians’ schedules, human error, etc.). So you might be waiting for days, or even straddling business weeks, depending on the variables. Hopefully the wait is short and you aren’t left wondering.
Even if you’re a naturally calm person, the unknown isn’t a fun place to be; the possibility that something in your body could be sick, broken, or beyond repair can still feel pretty unsettling. If you find yourself at the severe end of the health anxiety spectrum or feel afraid something is seriously wrong, waiting for results can be miserable and exhausting.
Your primitive fight-or-flight physiology is activated when you’re in fear and can make everyday events feel threatening. Your cell phone vibrates and your chest tightens. Your doctor’s office sends you a message and your stomach drops. An innocent Google search becomes a terrifying rabbit hole.
Tips for waiting to get your CT, MRI, or other imaging results
Whether you’re someone who doesn’t sweat the small stuff, a bonafide hypochondriac, or fall somewhere in between, coping techniques can make the waiting game more manageable. Here are some of our favorites:
- Communicate with your doctor. If you’re anxious or feeling afraid about what led you to schedule a diagnostic imaging test, tell your doctor. They can’t read your mind, but when you’re transparent with them, they can note your concerns and arrange to contact you with your test results ASAP. In the same vein, if the radiologist tasked with reading your images is on-site and available to chat after the test, you can let them know you’re feeling anxious about your results. Your vulnerability makes you human, and people can empathize with that. Even doctors.
- Breathe mindfully. Anxious thoughts can make you hold your breath without noticing. When you do that, your body goes into panic mode. And during panic mode, your body tries to conserve its breath. This becomes a hellish cycle that can be hard to break, but mindful breathing can interrupt it. (This includes meditative breathing, but you can definitely do this in other ways if meditating isn’t your thing.) Deep inhalations through the nose followed by slow exhalations through the mouth can lower your heart rate, which sends a message to your brain that the rest of your body can calm down, too. “Square” or “box” breathing is a particularly calming breathing technique: inhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4; repeat as needed.1
- Be gentle with yourself. It doesn’t serve you well to beat yourself up for feeling anxious or scared as you wait for results. “But other people have it much worse than me”, “I should be grateful I’m as healthy as I am”, “I just need to toughen up”, are toxic tropes–don’t breathe any life into self-critical messages like that. From the neck up, you might know that obsessing about test results doesn’t make sense because they're ultimately out of your control. But from the neck down, the fear or panic you experience when you think about the possible diagnoses might be enough to completely disconnect your head from your heart at that moment. That’s another tempting thing to be harsh with yourself about, but don’t take the bait. Your feelings are valid, and it’s okay to be scared about your test results.
- Lean on your support system. Results limbo is the time to lean on your support system–your ride-or-die, trust-with-anything friends, relatives, and confidantes. This also includes any mental health professional you might be seeing (therapist, counselor, psychiatrist). Speaking your fear out loud can cut its power over you in half. It also gives those who care about you the opportunity to support you and show up for you without making you feel ashamed or embarrassed. Chances are, they can relate to what you’re going through. You’re not alone.
- Defer to the experts. No matter how much research you’ve done, how many armchair theories you’ve exhausted, or how many hypotheses you’ve hashed out, you are not your own doctor. Defer to the expert in the room. Take heart in knowing that your doctor went to medical school, passed their boards, did residencies, fellowshipped, researched, and went through countless other steps to be where they are now. All their training has prepared them to diagnose and treat medical conditions in the safest and most effective ways possible. You’re off the hook—and that means Google is, too. (Please don’t Google your symptoms. It’s a fast-track panic attack waiting to happen.)
- Take care of yourself. Exercise, meditate, sleep when tired, call your best friend, go for a walk, watch your favorite show, journal. Make a conscious decision to use your healthy outlets. They can anchor you in times of stress and fear.
The take-home on medical imaging results
The emotions you experience while waiting for your imaging results can be intensely uncomfortable and outright painful at times. But feelings always change, and they always pass. How you feel now is different from how you felt last week or will feel tomorrow. No feeling is final.
Fears often feel so real. You can honor that. But you must also remember that real does not equal true. 91% of our worst fears never even come to pass.1
And guess what? You’ve made it through 100% of your hardest days. You’ll make it through this, too.
- health.clevelandclinic.org: How Box Breathing Can Help You Destress