How to Cope with MRI Anxiety?

MRI technician with MRI machine

What is Claustrophobia?

MRI anxiety is most often linked to claustrophobia. And, indeed, claustrophobia is no laughing matter. In fact, this condition affects approximately 5-7% of the United States population. But, what is claustrophobia? And, how is conquering this particular fear related to spine health?

Claustrophobia is a fear of being entrapped in small, confined spaces. Riding in elevators, climbing narrow staircases, standing in crowded rooms, or taking the subway for long distances… All of these events can be anxiety triggers for individuals with even mild claustrophobia. Although many will assert that this fear is “irrational,” individuals who suffer from claustrophobia experience true panic when forced to occupy a cramped space.

In most cases, claustrophobia will present itself as an anxiety attack. These panic episodes can vary in intensity and duration based upon the individual. However, some of the distressing symptoms of panic attacks include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Hyperventilation or shallow breathing
  • Uncontrollable shaking
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Nausea
  • An overwhelming fear of impending harm or death

Furthermore, those individuals who encounter someone in this state of anxiety often do not know how to help this person. They may experience symptoms of anxiety themselves, and frequently, end up dialing 911. Simply put, no one involved finds claustrophobia to be a pleasant experience.

 woman with mri anxiety in waiting room

What is MRI Anxiety?

Moreover, for those individuals who experience these distressing symptoms, it can sometimes lead to the worst consequence of all: missing out on life. Sufferers will avoid situations just to keep from experiencing the scary anxiety attacks that can ensue. This can result in missed job interviews due to a fear of riding an elevator; lost time with family as you avoid everyday activities; or even neglect of one’s health. This last complication may seem unusual, but it’s true! One of the main sources of claustrophobia-related panic attacks is the dreaded MRI machine.

Doctors use Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as a common diagnostic technique in modern medicine. As such, MRIs can produce high-resolution, high-quality images of the internal structures of the body.

However, many patients are less enthused. Sometimes described as a coffin (no joke here), a traditional MRI machine uses a diameter as small as 2-feet. Yes, your head and torso are squeezed into a dark space no wider than the length of a French baguette. And, on top of this, you aren’t allowed to move. It’s not surprising that this experience causes anxiety for those who don’t even normally suffer claustrophobia.

Yet, in spite of all this “scary talk,” we cannot stress the importance of these diagnostic imaging machines enough. MRI’s are integral in your physician’s ability to see what’s going on inside your body and provide you with a successful treatment plan. Fortunately, to avoid the scary experience of an anxiety attack, there are a number of techniques that can help you relax. Check out some of these strategies for MRI success:

 essential oils for mri relaxation

MRI Anxiety & Relaxation Modalities

The following strategies may help you relax on MRI day:

  • Relaxation Techniques: If you have mild MRI anxiety, then relaxation techniques may help you overcome your fears. These methods can help redirect your thoughts, lower your heart rate, and ease that unsettled feeling in the pit of your stomach. Likewise, aromatherapy is another great option. Scents such as vanilla, lavender, and chamomile are just a few of the calming fragrances that you could try. And, you can find these oils at any health food store. Furthermore, you can easily apply these oils directly to clothing or dilute them in water to make a spray. Other relaxation techniques include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and visualization of calming images or locations. In fact, the more of these techniques that you can recruit at once, the greater success that you’re likely to have.
  • Distraction Techniques: If relaxation isn’t working on its own, you may want to pair some of the above techniques with distraction. This could include using a blindfold, noise cancelling headphones, earplugs, relaxing music, or white noise from the humming of a fan.
  • Therapy for Long-Term Loss of Fear: If you’re playing the long game and want to eliminate claustrophobia altogether, a therapist can be of assistance. A variety of therapeutic techniques can diminish the effects of claustrophobia and other phobias. In particular, desensitization to your fear is the ultimate goal. And, this objective is attainable by using talk therapy or experiential techniques, acupuncture, and even hypnosis.

 open mri machine for claustrophobic patients

Improvements in MRI Design

Thankfully, medical technologists have taken all of this anxiety surrounding MRI machines into account and have improved upon their design. These days, more open and approachable versions of MRIs have replaced the traditional closed machine. A High-Field Open MRI accomplishes exactly this. Although you must still lie down to use this device, the sides of the machine are wide open. This permits for a much less constricted experience. Additionally, Open-Upright MRI’s allow you to sit upright and possibly even watch television while your technician conducts the exam.

If an MRI is in your not-so-distant future, check in with your spine surgeon to see if these alternate machines are available. Your doctor can point you to the right facility with the best MRI device to ease your anxiety.

Relief from your MRI anxiety is attainable! Don’t hesitate to discuss your MRI anxiety with your doctor or radiologist ahead of time. Sometimes just a comforting, calming voice is all that you need to conquer your fears.

At New York City Spine Surgery, our standard for excellent care means treating you as a whole person, and not just another spine disorder on a chart.

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