Tips for Getting Your First Brain MRI

This content is available in video form on my YouTube channel. Check it out!

I consider myself something of a professional when it comes to having MRIs. In fact, my brain tumor has been scanned so many times, I have genuinely lost count of the number of MRIs I’ve undergone since 2017. If you’re nervous about having one because you’re not sure what to expect, that’s understandable. But I think I can help put at least some of you out there at ease, so I’m going to try. The advice I’m about to give is particularly helpful for those of you going in head-first for brain and spine scans.

If you’re claustrophobic? Ask for an anti-anxiety pill.

If you think you’re not claustrophobic? Still ask for an anti anxiety pill.

I didn’t think I was claustrophobic when my doctor screened me before my first scan, but it turns out that I had just never been in such tight quarters before. When the MRI tech slid me in, I freaked out a little. He moved the table back out and let me compose myself. But in hindsight, the whole thing would have probably been much easier with a Xanax.

I don’t need Xanax now, but that’s because MRIs are as common as sneezing for me now. (If you’re lucky, YOU TOO can become desensitized to having MRIs. Kidding. Of course.)

Close your eyes.

…before the table you’re lying on starts moving you inside the tube, and don’t open them again until you’re all the way out. It’s easier to not freak out if you’re not looking at the thing that freaks you out.

Ask for a Washcloth.

If the tech doesn’t bring it up herself, ask her to put a washcloth over your eyes. My scans last from 45 minutes to an hour depending, and that’s a long time to squint your eyes closed, particulalry if you’re stressed. With the washcloth over your eyes it won’t matter if your eyelids involuntarily pop open. And the previous tip I is automatically taken care of.

Be prepared for some really loud honking and buzzing noises.

You will be given earplugs and/or noise cancelling headphones, but they only protect your ears. They don’t completely eliminate the noise. When I get my MRIs, they offer to play music in the headphones if I want. I always say yes, and I always pick something with a nice beat like ’80s pop or classic rock.

Consider learning to meditate.

If you already meditate/practice mindfulness, you are at a GREAT advantage for staying mellow during the scan. If you don’t meditate, maybe give it a try. I have found it so helpful because meditation is essentially just training your brain to focus on things that are helpful while ignoring the stuff that’s potentially stressful.

Contrast will make you feel like you wet your pants, even though you haven’t.

If you’re getting an MRI with contrast: expect some weird but harmless sensations. The IV contrast feels cold in my arm when it goes in, and then I get a warm sensation that makes me feel like I’ve wet my pants a few seconds later. It goes away pretty quickly. But I can see how those things might be a little disconcerting if you’re not anticipating it.

Relax! You get a panic button.

Yes, they’ll give you a panic button! They put a little rubber ball in your hand that you can squeeze if you need to get out for any reason. If you can’t handle it in there, squeeze the ball, the tech will be alerted, and then the tech will always slide you on out. You are never actually trapped in there. Don’t let the freak-out part of your brain tell you otherwise.

Warm blankets are available. You might or might now want them.

You’ll probably be offered warm blankets. I never take them, because I’m almost always hot, and I find that feeling cool air swirl around inside the MRI and inhaling it deeply is pretty calming. However, if you’re always cold and think you might be shiver-y, take the blankets. Moving during the scan can blur the pictures and make it necessary to start that one over. Nobody wants that.

BONUS TIP: If you haven’t already, check your hospital’s website for information on what to expect and any special instructions. The more you know, the less there is to potentially be scared about.

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