How To Cope With Claustrophobia In MRI

  • Dana Visnitchi MSci, Neuroscience with Psychology, University of Aberdeen, Scotland
  • Stephanie Leadbitter MSc Cancer Biology & Radiotherapy Physics, BSc (Hons) Biomedical Science, University of Manchester, UK

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Have you ever needed an Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan and the thought of being in a narrow enclosed space made you anxious and sick? Well, that fear is known as claustrophobia, and plenty of people experience it when they have to undergo that procedure.

There are some useful techniques that could help you get through this experience, like knowing what to expect, breathing exercises, and external options that could help you relax. There are also some alternatives (wide bore or upright MRI scan) which you could ask for, if they are available.

This article will focus on how to cope with claustrophobia during an MRI, and it will provide you with some tips you could use to stay calm during this experience. 

What is claustrophobia?

Claustrophobia is the fear of small enclosed spaces, experienced by 12.5% of the population. People with this condition are not actually scared of the described spaces, but rather they feel distress over being trapped or the possibility of suffering from suffocation.1

Being positioned in a large tube, where you have to lay for 15-90 minutes waiting for your MRI scan to finish, may trigger a panic attack or other uncomfortable feelings if you are claustrophobic. That is why knowing how to deal with this situation is important. Below are some useful tips which could help you. 

Preparing for the MRI

Knowing what to expect in advance might help you reduce your anxiety. Research has shown that patients were calmer for their MRI after reading an informative leaflet or watching an explanatory video about this procedure.2 You should discuss all your concerns with your radiographer so they can inform you how long your MRI will last, what you are expected to do, and what are the benefits of finishing the scan. 

Before the MRI

Normally, on the day of your MRI scan you can eat and drink without an issue, unless your radiographer or general practitioner advises you otherwise. Then you will have to follow their instructions. 

You will probably also have to complete a form about your medical history and whether you have any metallic implants on your body, as the MRI uses a strong magnetic field to generate images of the inside of your body and results could be altered. If you want a sedative to control your claustrophobia, you should ask for it beforehand.

Afterwards, you will change into a hospital gown and remove any external metal objects you might carry, like:

  • Jewellery
  • Piercings
  • Watches
  • Hearing aids

During the MRI

You will lie on your back on a bed and will be introduced in the tube either head first or feet first, depending if your upper body or lower body is being examined. 

For the images to be clear you need to be still for 15-90 minutes, during which time you will hear some loud noises which are normal. To cancel those noises, you can wear earplugs or earphones to listen to music. There is an intercom in the machine, so you will be able to talk with your radiologist during this time, and inform them if there is something wrong. This could be beneficial as it may help you remain calm.

After the MRI

After your scan is over, the specialist will look at the results to ensure the images are clear and you will be able to go home. The radiographer (perhaps along with other specialists) will examine the images and provide a diagnosis to your physician, although it could take some time (a few days). 

Exploring relaxation techniques

Breathing exercises

Taking deep, slow, and controlled breaths from your diaphragm will help you reduce your anxiety. Slower respiration will activate your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for the relaxation of your body.3 Therefore, performing breathing exercises during your scan can help you relax, and it will take your focus off the space. 

Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness consists of you being aware of your sensations, emotions, thoughts and perceptions. This practice is achieved through meditation, which requires controlled breathing and paying attention to your environment. Consequently, it helps you focus your attention on what is happening around you, rather than concentrating on negative outcomes and feelings, making your body and mind relax. You could use this technique before and during your scan.

Progressive muscle relaxation

The progressive muscle relaxation technique consists of tensing up a particular muscle, and then releasing that tension. You have to engage in this technique several times, until you achieve the total relaxation of your body. It is suggested you practise this method consistently to achieve the desired effects. While you might not be able to do this during your MRI because you need to lay still, you could practise it right before your scan, so you are as calm as possible. 

Request a sedative

In some cases, relaxation or other useful techniques might not be enough to help people control their claustrophobia, so using a sedative could be the only way to make them less anxious. 

Dexmedetomidine is the sedative that is often used in these cases, but its effect is not immediate, and it may induce some side effects like low blood pressure and slow heart rate. But research has shown that combining this drug with an appropriate dose of midazolam at the right time will have barely any respiratory complications.

But make sure a professional administers you the sedative, rather than taking something yourself. If you suffer from any health conditions, you should inform your physician so they can offer you the sensible option that will not cause you adverse effects. Furthermore, ensure you have someone to drive you back home, as the anxiolytic effect can last for a while. 

Listen to music

The loud noises the MRI machine makes can make the scan even more uncomfortable for you. To help with this, you can ask the radiographer for headphones so you can listen to music. You can even ask them to play something you like so you can concentrate on something else rather than the space or sounds of the machine. There is evidence that listening to live music during the MRI can help you move less, request fewer breaks, complete the scan in less time, and overall reduce your anxiety.5

Have a support system

Bring a friend or family member

Having someone you trust accompany you might help you alleviate your fear, especially if they offer encouragement and regularly check on you. This was confirmed by a study where patients stated that they felt more comfortable with the scan when they had a relative with them who kept reassuring them.2

Inform your radiographer about your claustrophobia

Discussing your claustrophobia with the MRI technician is important so that they can address your concerns and help you through the procedure. 

This is out of your control, but it helps greatly if your radiographer is reassuring and supportive to help calm your anxiety. They can sit you down beforehand, explain how everything is going to work, talk to you during the MRI, and if they need to move you for whatever reason, address it rather than just doing it without a warning.

Request breaks during the procedure

If you feel like the MRI is becoming too much and your claustrophobia is starting to get worse, you can request a break. While this will probably make this experience last a bit longer, it is important you do not push yourself too hard. In addition, if you become restless and start moving too much, the images will not be clear and you will probably need to repeat it. That is why if you need a break, you should take it.

Alternative MRI options

As mentioned before, there are other MRI machines that are not as enclosed, and might be more beneficial for your claustrophobia:

  • Open MRI: This consists of a magnet over and/or under you, with you lying on an open space. While this can help you feel more relaxed, the quality of the images is not as clear as in a regular MRI, and it also takes longer
  • Wide-bore MRI: This type of scanner is shorter and wider, providing more space, which could also reduce anxiety if you are claustrophobic

Ask your health provider if these options are available, and have them explain the pros and cons of both in further detail so that you can decide which option to choose.

FAQ’S

How big is an MRI machine?

Usually, an MRI machine is 60 cm wide, while a wide-bore MRI is 70cm wide.

What happens if I cough during an MRI?

During your MRI you should remain still so that the images are clear. If you cough or do other sudden movements, you might disrupt the images, making them blurry, so you may need to repeat the scan.

Can I breathe during an MRI scan?

Yes. While you need to be still, you can breathe normally, and even perform breathing exercises to help you relax.

Summary

Claustrophobia is the fear of enclosed spaces, and many people who have MRI’s performed suffer from it during the scan. However, there are several ways you can cope with your claustrophobia and reduce your anxiety during this procedure, including being informed and knowing what to expect, different relaxation techniques, sedatives, listening to music, having a relative accompany you, or even alternative MRI machines. Furthermore, if you have an MRI appointment upcoming and you are claustrophobic, you should explain your problem and address your concerns to the radiographer so they can provide you with information to make the experience easier for you. Additionally, consider consulting a therapist to treat and manage this fear.

References

  • Vadakkan C, Siddiqui W. Claustrophobia. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Nov 28]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542327/
  • Lawal O, Regelous P, Omiyi D. Supporting claustrophobic patients during Magnetic Resonance Imaging examination– the patient perspective. Radiography. 2023 Oct 1;29(6):1108–14. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S107881742300175X
  • Jerath R, Crawford MW, Barnes VA, Harden K. Self-regulation of breathing as a primary treatment for anxiety. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2015 Jun;40(2):107–15. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1007/s10484-015-9279-8
  • Jung J, Kang Y, Chae WS, Chung YH. Sedation for magnetic resonance imaging in the prone position - A report of four cases -. Anesth Pain Med (Seoul). 2022 Jul 31;17(3):286–90. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9346199/
  • Walworth DD. Effect of live music therapy for patients undergoing magnetic resonance imaging. Journal of Music Therapy. 2010 Dec 1;47(4):335–50. Available from: https://academic.oup.com/jmt/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/jmt/47.4.335

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Dana Visnitchi

MSci, Neuroscience with Psychology, University of Aberdeen, Scotland

I’m an early career with a degree in Neuroscience with Psychology, who is passionate about mental health, and aims to promote it to a large audience without a scientific background. I’m also interested in skincare and cardiovascular health, and always keen to expand my knowledge. I have previous experience in literature search, creating content for different audiences, and making contributions to a published research paper about Gender Dysphoria. I’m currently focused on exploring medical communications to have a significant impact on the healthcare community.

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