Getting an MRI With Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Has your healthcare provider ordered an MRI for you? If you have fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, there are a few things you should know—and do—before you go in for this test.

An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan is used for a lot of different things. It helps healthcare providers diagnose soft-tissue injuries, spinal problems, vascular abnormalities, gastrointestinal problems, and diseases or abnormalities of the brain.

It's unlikely that you'll need an MRI for a diagnosis of fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome unless your particular set of symptoms is similar to that of a neurological illness that can only be ruled out by MRI.

You may also need an MRI at some point to diagnose an injury or a different illness. Before that time, there are some things you need to know that may help you get through it with less of a symptom flare.

Several of our symptoms can make an MRI, especially of the brain, difficult, including:

With proper planning, though, you may be able to alleviate a lot of problems.

Doctor and patient in radiology lab
Cultura RM Exclusive/Sigrid Gombert / Getty Images

What Is an MRI?

An MRI uses magnetism and radio waves to send images of structures inside your body to a computer. In most machines, you lie on a bed that slides into and out of a tube around which there's a big doughnut-like structure that holds the magnets.

During the test, the magnets spin around you and loud sounds send radio waves through the body part being scanned. It's not a quick test—it can last anywhere from 10 minutes to more than two hours, depending on what the scan is for and how much of your body they need to examine.

During a brain MRI, your head will be immobilized in a cage-like contraption with an opening over your face so you can see and breathe. The sides of the opening are padded and designed to hold you snugly in place.

Contraindications to an MRI scan include having an insulin pump, a pacemaker, any metal in your eye. Prior to doing the procedure, the imaging center should review your medical history to make sure that it is safe.

Considerations for Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Several aspects of the MRI process can be problematic for those of us with these conditions.

The first thing you should do is let your healthcare provider know that the test could be a serious problem for you. Some facilities have MRI machines with different designs that are quieter and less confining. Your practitioner may know of one or, with a few phone calls, you may be able to find out if there's one in your area. (Be sure to check on whether your insurance will cover it.)

If that's not an option, here are the next steps to take:

  • If you have anxiety issues or claustrophobia, talk to your healthcare provider when he/she orders an MRI about medication options. Some practitioners may give you an anti-anxiety drug like Xanax (alprazolam) or Valium (diazepam). Managing your anxiety should also help minimize problems related to noise sensitivity. (They'll give you earplugs, but the noise can still be aggravating.)
  • For people with severe anxiety or claustrophobia, sedation might be an option. Make sure you discuss this with your healthcare provider and the facility ahead of time. Don't just show up and ask to be sedated or they may not be able to accommodate you. Not all facilities offer this, either.
  • Lying on a hard surface, pressure against your arms and abdomen, and being still for so long may be a problem for those with hyperalgesia and allodynia. Pain medication before the MRI may make it more comfortable for you. (If you're also being sedated or taking something for anxiety, make sure to check that your pain meds will be safe.)
  • Take a few seconds to mentally calm yourself before going into the tube.
  • If they offer a towel or other covering over your face, accept it. Seeing how little space is between your face and the tube may trigger panic.
  • Arrange for a ride! Even if you're not sedated or heavily medicated, you might not be able to drive safely afterward.

It's also a good idea to let the staff know of any concerns you have before the scan begins. They may know of other ways to help you get through it.

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