I recently had my first closed MRI. Given the state of my health, it is amazing that it took me so long. I am 42, and have been symptomatic with chronic pain from undiagnosed Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome since I was 8 years old. You would think that I have had multiple full-body scans by now just to throw spaghetti at the wall. Even when severe headaches began in my 20s, I artfully dodged anyone who would have sent me into “the tube.” I saw no reason to take such drastic measures to get to the root cause, but really, you couldn’t have paid me to do it. Just thinking about it made me hyperventilate.
I did endure an open MRI two years ago to diagnose cervical instability, and I wish I could tell you that it was a better experience. Claustrophobia-wise, it was fine. But that’s not my biggest problem: I was expected to sit upright and perfectly still for three hours, in a position that I am not stable enough to hold, to diagnose…wait for it…instability. And when I couldn’t be still enough, the technician yelled at me. Not to mention the room was freezing and that makes me shake like a Chihuahua. I rarely cry in public from pain and frustration, and this was one of those days.
So, when my neurosurgeon recently suggested that I get an MRI of the brain to check CSF flow as a pre-workup for spine surgery, he quickly followed that up with, “It’s not going to be like it was last time. This will be easy and quick.” I held onto that promise, forgetting about that whole pesky claustrophobia-thing. I pictured in and out – with no time for panic. I scheduled my test for that Saturday before I could change my mind, and put it out of my head…
…until Friday night, when I realized, “Oh crap. My chest hurts every time I even think about that episode of CSI Las Vegas when Nick was buried alive in a casket. This may not go well tomorrow.” I got online, and asked for some anecdotes from my friends so I would have some funny stories to distract me when I was in there. What I got was a lot of advice to take sedatives (uh, it’s tomorrow, and my doctor will be enjoying his weekend. Not an option.) or people telling me how much they hate closed MRIs. Sigh. I did find one friend who made me laugh for a while and gave me some good storylines to imagine, so I recommend that you be very specific about what you want to hear and what you don’t, should you go seeking solace from your tribe.
In spite of my nerves, I showed up on Saturday, full of confidence (denial is a powerful tool.) I laid down, on the table, and “Carol the technician” told me what was going to happen and put my head in a padded frame to help me stay perfectly still. (This was already going much better than the open MRI…I got to lie down and everything!) I told Carol that I get a bit claustrophobic, and she was doing a good job of reassuring me about the speed of the test. About 30 min. I closed my eyes, and she prepared me that it was time to move the table back to set up the test. I felt myself go…
What is that part of ourselves that dares to do things that we know we shouldn’t do, but we do it anyway? Didn’t the Ancient Greeks call it hubris? Yeah, that didn’t work out too well for them. Some part of my brain told my eyes to open to get a lay of the land before we got started.
Never do that.
I opened my eyes. I saw that Carol had put a facemask over me, (gasp!) and then I saw the top of the MRI tube…I reached out with my hand and touched how close it was…
“GET ME OUT! CAROL!!!!!! I NEED TO COME OUT NOW!”
To her credit, she had me out in less than 15 seconds. As I lay there, with tears streaming down my face and my chest heaving, I thought, “Well, this is not how I thought it was going to go.” I truly imagined I was going to walk in here and kill it. Carol, who wasn’t even supposed to be working on a Saturday, (I found that out in my first 2 minutes,) looked at me with pity and said, “What some people do is have their doctors write them for some Valium. You can schedule one of our sedation appointments…”
What? Leave? And have to come back?
No. NO! I can do this. I took a deep breath.
“Carol, can you please give me one more chance? I need 5 min, and if I can’t do it within that time, I won’t try longer. I just need to keep my eyes closed and not look (shudder.)
“Well, would you like an eye mask?”
(What?! Why didn’t you lead with eye mask when I told you I was claustrophobic, CAROL???!!!)
Ladies and Gents, once that eye mask went on, it was like I was lying in a bed. As Carol put it, I was a “Jedi Master” in there. Of course, I have also had some experience with lying in relaxation pose at the end of yoga class, and attempting to learn how to meditate. It all served me, and my body lay limp. My friend’s humorous words bounced around in my head, and made me smile (Inside. Can’t mess up the brain pics.) As for the loud, annoying clanging noises, the earplugs that you wear do help, but what I did was envision them as music, and imagined a super hot person doing a STOMP-like dance performance on stage (hey, whatever works.)
So, here are my Dos and Don’ts for how to handle a closed MRI Like a Boss:
- Know your level of panic/anxiety: If you live with a panic disorder, get the drugs and someone to drive you. If you can’t take drugs, there are herbal supplements that are known to help with anxiety and claustrophobia, like Kava.
- Ask for a blanket if you need one: Are you a cold person like me? You’ll be in scrubs, and shivering isn’t fun. They have blankets, so get one. Or three.
- Control your anxious thoughts: Realize the difference between what is possible and what is probable. A friend once told me a great analogy for controlling anxiety: bad thoughts are like busses – you need to choose which ones you get on, and let the others pass on by. That second time, instead of fixating on being in a space that “I couldn’t escape,” or “I can’t breathe,” I knew I absolutely COULD breathe (I was doing it) and I knew that the tech had my back, because she had just responded to my request to bail. Do a dry run before you start if you need the reassurance.
- Use an eyemask: The mask tricked my body into sensing no difference between how I felt outside or inside the tube, breathing wise. If you have never used a mask before, start sleeping with one in your own bed before your test, and you will associate it with positive feelings.
- Practice stillness: This might seem silly, but we could all use a little bit more of this in our lives, especially given how loud, road ragey, and electronic our world is getting. I’m not talking about climbing a mountain and fasting for three days. I mean, get better at it in any way you can. It really served me. There is an app for that. I have something on my smart phone called the i-Qi timer, and it trains you to listen to chimes and focus, even for very short amounts of time.
I have the utmost of respect for anyone who lives with anxiety. This was my first experience with that level of panic, and it was horrible. It was so bad, that even the memory of it tightens my chest. That night, I lay in bed, and I pictured what the MRI tube looked like over my face…
…and I leaped out of bed, and had to stand in front of my fan, with my chest heaving again. “No…No, no, NO!” I told myself. “I have too many problems to add panic to the list. I can breathe. I am not in a tiny space. It is possible that I would be stuck in a tiny space, but highly improbable. And that is the last time I will entertain this thought.” So far so good. It’s been a week, and I only got mildly tight chested typing out this post.
But, (as they say in Staten Island,) the ass-kicker? I need to repeat the MRI with contrast. Wish me luck.
Have you successfully warded off panic in “the tube?” What worked for you?
(Please note, I am not a medical professional. I do not diagnose or treat problems. If you have any serious medical concerns, seek the attention of a professional.)