Tips to Keep You Calm During Your Next MRI Scan

A patient enters an MRI scanner.
A patient enters an MRI scanner. Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

Being rolled into a narrow tube that makes loud, banging noises where you can't move a muscle is no one's idea of fun.

Despite the dread they can inspire, MRIs are a necessary part of diagnosing and monitoring your multiple sclerosis (MS). Researchers and doctors consider them to be one of the biggest breakthroughs in the MS field, as they give healthcare professionals a chance to look inside the brain in a way that was never possible before.

But again, the procedure itself can certainly be an unusual, loud, and even scary experience, especially if you've never had an MRI. It can also cause anxiety even in the seasoned pros.

With that, anticipating and understanding what to expect during an MRI will help you through the scan.

Here are some tips to help make your MRI experience as stress-free as possible.

When Your Doctor Orders Your Scan

Ask your doctor what he or she will want to see on the MRI: the brain, part of the spinal cord, or both. If your doctor wants a scan of both, which is likely, if this is your first MRI, you may be asked if you prefer one or two sessions (meaning a combined brain/spinal cord MRI or dividing them up in two separate days).

Here are some things to consider when deciding:

  • Doing the whole thing at one time may take up to two hours.
  • If you split it up, the sessions will be shorter each time, but you will have to go to two appointments and may have to receive gadolinium (contrast material) more than once.

What to Do on Your MRI Scan Day

Before you leave home on the day of your MRI appointment, keep these things in mind:

  • Don't wear jewelry. Leave all of your jewelry at home, unless you want to spend time taking it off once you arrive.
  • Avoid wearing metal. Some MRI centers allow you to wear your own clothes instead of a hospital gown during the scan, as long as there are no metal buttons, snaps, or zippers, so you may want to keep this in mind when dressing. If this is the case, try wearing a t-shirt and elastic waist pants or shorts and comfortable shoes.
  • Dress for heat. Dress lightly or in layers that you can remove easily and avoid thick, heavy socks. It can get very hot in the MRI machine, especially in the area you're having scanned. If you're worried about being cold, the MRI technician can provide you with a blanket.
  • Consider a sports bra. For women, a sports bra with no metal underwire may help you feel more comfortable. Otherwise, you'll have to be without a bra in the machine.

What to Do When You Arrive at the MRI Center

When you arrive at the MRI center, before the scan, remember to:

  • Take a ​cough suppressant if you need one. Coughing within the machine may result in having to start the test over again if you move your head. For some people, not being able to cough invariably brings on the urge to cough. Make it easier on yourself and consider taking an over-the-counter cough lozenge when you arrive.
  • Take a sedative if you need one. If you're claustrophobic, or very scared of the procedure itself, don't be afraid to ask your physician for a sedative, such as the benzodiazepine valium (diazepam). Explain that you're feeling anxious and think you need one. Of course, if you do take a sedative, be sure you are not driving home after the test, as the sleepiness may persist for hours.
  • Ask for a blanket if the room is cold, as well as earplugs and music if they aren't provided. Once you're in the machine, there's no moving or stopping. So ask for everything you need or may need beforehand. While the machine does get warm, if the room itself is cold or you tend to feel cold, have a blanket placed over you. Earplugs and headphones are standard protocol at most MRI centers to help block out the loud noise of the machine, but if your tech forgets one or the other, remind him or her. You're going to wish you had these things once the test starts.

    What to Do During the Scan

    During the scan, there's not much you can do but try to relax. Here are some tips:

    • Use the mirror—or avoid it at all costs. There's sometimes a small mirror positioned above your head, which is tilted so that you can see outside of the machine. Some people find this extremely comforting, and others find it disorienting. Check it out and decide which camp you fall into. If you don't like it, just keep your eyes closed.
    • Practice creative visualization. Picture the most pleasant, relaxing place that you've ever been. Imagine that you're there. Try to remember tiny details about this place. Focus on colors, lighting, temperature, and scents. In the end, visualization can be a very useful tool for minimizing anxiety.
    • Breathe steadily and regularly. Try counting your breaths up to 10, then count backward. Repeating this is so relaxing that you may even drift off to sleep during your scan.
    • Use mantras or prayers. Repeating a positive affirmation or empowering phrase, such as "All is well" or "I am safe and strong," or "I will be OK," can help induce the relaxation you want to feel in the machine. If you have a favorite prayer, now is a good time to recite it in your mind.

      After Your MRI

      After your MRI scan, here are a couple things you can do:

      • Drink lots of water. The gadolinium contrast dye needs to be flushed out by your kidneys, and drinking extra water can help speed up this process.
      • Treat yourself. Get a massage, have lunch with a friend, or buy a light novel and get lost in the story. If you're too tired for any of that, take a warm bubble bath and go to sleep early. You've earned it.

      A Word From Verywell

      Hopefully, these tips can make your MRI experience as comfortable as possible. Of course, if you have any specific questions or concerns, be sure to talk to your neurologist beforehand.

      Even more, when you get the results of your MRI back, ask your doctor questions and be open and honest about your worries, like if you do not understand a particular finding, or if you are uncertain whether your current MS disease-modifying therapy is helping you.

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