Patient's Guide To MRI

The road to reaching a diagnosis can be a long and winding one. Even after you have reached the point of receiving a diagnosis, the journey might not have come to a complete end. To-ing and fro-ing to doctors and hospitals forms an unfortunate part of life for the chronically ill. As is the case with me at the moment. You may recall that back in December I blogged about experiencing new symptoms including numbness, pins and needles and changes in sensation down my left side. It’s been a long and slow process in getting this seen to. I was referred to neurology back in February and finally had the appointment with the neurologist last month. The result of that was that I was sent for an MRI scan of my brain and spinal cord. I am not new to diagnostic tests, having received plenty leading up to my diagnosis of fibromyalgia, but this was the first time I had ever had an MRI. The prospect of it can be a daunting one, so I thought I would share my experience and let you know exactly what happens in case you find yourself in the same boat.

WHAT IS AN MRI?
MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging and it is a type of scan that uses both radiowaves and a strong magnetic field to produce detailed images of inside the body. If you would like to read a little more detail on how it works, you can find that information here. The scanner is a large tube-like structure and when you go for the scan, you lie on your back on a table that then moves into the tube. It is a very small, tight space but it is light inside.

BEFORE THE APPOINTMENT

Before your appointment you will receive a letter detailing the date of the scan and what type of scan you are getting, e.g. MRI of the brain and cervicothoracic spine. It may not be safe to carry out a scan on every person and so you will also receive a list of things that you need to inform the MRI Department of in advance of your appointment. These include if you have ever had an injury involving metal fragments going into your eyes, if you are or think you may be pregnant, if you have a medical pump or any electronic device or if you have a cardiac pacemaker. In addition, if you have ever suffered from claustrophobia it is important to let the hospital know in advance so that things can be put into place to make the experience easier for you.

ON THE DAY OF THE APPOINTMENT
If possible, wear clothing that is free of any metal. I wore some superdry joggers and a vest top and I did not have to change into a medical gown. Do not wear any make up and if you have any body piercings then these must be removed. When you arrive at the hospital, you usually report to the Radiology/X-ray department. When it is time for your appointment, a nurse will come to take you through to a room to ask you some questions and weigh you. The questions you will be asked are things like if you have ever had surgery, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, if you have any medical devices such as a pacemaker in your body, if you have tattoos etc. They only ask about tattoos as back in the day metal was used in the inks and this can cause them to heat up during the scan (this did not happen with me and is very rare nowadays).

THE SCAN
You are then called through the the scan room and the radiographer will repeat a couple of the questions that you were asked before and then explain what is going to happen. You may be injected with a contrast dye, which helps make the images clearer, dependent on the type of scan you are having. I was not given this. You then remove your shoes and lie on your back on a narrow, padded bed. You have a pillow underneath your head and you can have a pillow placed under your knees or ankles if this will make you more comfortable. You are given a little device to hold in your hand, which you can squeeze at any point if you are uncomfortable and they will stop the scan. If you decide to listen to music then you will be given headphones to wear. I would strongly recommend listening to music as it helps you to relax, makes the times pass quicker and the machine can be quite noisy so it helps block that out. If, like me, you are having your head and neck scanned then they will place a cage-like device around your head that helps them to get clear images. This can feel really restricting but it is important to stay very still so just try to relax. You will then slowly be moved into the machine. You are not enclosed in the machine as your legs remain outside and you can look down and see out of the machine too. The radiographer can speak to you and will let you know when the scan is beginning and also if the table will move again at any point. Focus on your breathing, relax and stay as still as you can. How long the scan will last is dependent on the type of scan you are having. Mine took around 35-45 minutes.

During the scan there is a lot of noise, knocking and vibrations but it is completely painless and pretty uneventful. You may feel like the bed you are lying on is moving around a little bit but it’s just the vibrations created by the machine and it is completely safe.

AFTER THE SCAN
When you are brought out of the scanner, take your time getting up and off the table as you may feel a little dizzy. You are free to go home straight away. The radiographer cannot tell you the results of the scan immediately as they need to be looked at by your consultant. The radiographer may ask you if you have an appointment coming up with your consultant and that, if you don’t, you should hear about results within 1-2 weeks. Do not read into that and think it is due to the radiographer seeing something on your scan. It’s just standard protocol.

AWAITING YOUR RESULTS
I think waiting in ‘limbo land’ is actually the worst part of the whole process for most people. It’s important not to stress yourself about your results but it’s only natural to find a whole host of thoughts and emotions running through your mind. Remember, it’s better to know of any problems than to be completely unaware. Chances are, if you have been sent for a scan, you have persisting symptoms. Isn’t is better to have a diagnosis and possible treatment that may help you get better? The scan may also come back clean and therefore rule out possible diagnoses, which would put your mind at ease. So, as hard as it is, try to put it to the back of your mind. Using meditation and tapping can aid relaxation but one of the most useful things you can do is talk to someone you trust. Open up about your fears and face them head on. Surround yourself with support and you will be able to tackle whatever that potential future diagnosis brings you.

Author

Hello, I'm Donna. I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia in 2013 and started this blog shortly after. After my health declined significantly the following year, I decided to become my own advocate and searched for answers. It took two years but, in 2016, I finally discovered I had Lyme Disease. On February Stars, I share my personal journey back to better health; discussing what has helped me and the mistakes I've made along the way. I also cover topics on self-improvement, managing symptoms and living life to the fullest with chronic illness.

2 Comments

  1. I’m pretty much an expert in the field of MRI scans now, as I have had 4 of them. They usually go fine, despite the deafening sound of a jack hammer directly beside your ears. But one time they had to do an MRI on me with shorter notice so I was sent to a children’s hospital. I guess children get afraid inside an MRI machine (not surprisingly) so the technicians are used to playing music for them. They forgot that I was a 25 year old and I had to lay completely still in an MRI machine for 45 minutes while they played one of Justin Bieber’s albums for me. It was fairly traumatizing 😛

    I hope you are no longer in limbo land, the most dreaded of all purgatories, and that you are doing okay!

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