For a Successful MRI, Relax and Hold Still
If your physician has recommended you get an MRI, you may be wondering what it’s like to undergo a diagnostic exam inside a tube.
DOs, or osteopathic physicians, focus on prevention by gaining a deeper understanding of your lifestyle and environment as they partner to help you get healthy and stay well.
Wade Wong, DO, an emeritus professor of radiology at University of California, San Diego, sheds some light on the MRI process.
How MRI scans work
A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to create a digital image of your body. The parts of the body being tested go into a special machine that examines how different atoms respond to magnetic pulses. A radiologist interprets these images.
Why have an MRI?
An MRI scan can be performed to detect problems or provide better detail about an issue detected on an X-ray or scan, such as:
- Abnormal blood flow
- Stroke damage
- Joint issues (i.e. arthritis)
Step 1: Health screening process
Before scheduling an MRI appointment, a screener will ask you about your health history. Let them know if you:
- Have prosthetics, like a heart valve or cochlear implants, spinal cord stimulator, pacemaker or defibrillator. These devices can conduct electricity.
- Suffer from claustrophobia.
- Are or might be pregnant.
- Have a tattoo or permanent makeup (these could contain metal material).
- Are a metal worker. If small metal fragments are near your eyes, they could migrate and cause blindness.
- Have possible allergies to any medication.
- Have problems with your kidneys.
Step 2: Getting an MRI
If no issues come up during the screening, you can schedule an MRI appointment. The day of the MRI, you might be asked to change into a gown. Be sure to empty your pockets of all metal objects. Items like keys or paper clips could fly off into the magnet at a high speed.
You’ll lie down on a table. If your head is being examined, it might be placed in a holder so you don’t move and disrupt the imaging. The table slides into a dark tube. Some machines have a video screen or piped-in music.
“Basically we want you to be fairly relaxed, not looking all over the place,” Dr. Wong says.
When the scan starts, the technician will give you some instructions. You might hear loud sounds lasting 30 seconds to a minute as the scan sequences are taken. To help expedite the experience, try to hold still and follow the directions from the technologist.
What if I’m claustrophobic?
Claustrophobia is the most common fear related to getting an MRI. The scan will be unreadable if you move too much, so if you are claustrophobic, you can ask about being sedated or if a limited quick scan can be performed. Other alternatives include an open air magnet (these do not provide as much detail) or a CT scan.
How long does it take?
MRI scans can take anywhere from a few minutes up to an hour. The sequence may need to be repeated if you don’t stay still. On some occasions, findings may require you to return for an additional scan.
“The more cooperative the patient is, the quicker the test goes,” Dr. Wong notes.