There are more questions and unknowns that come with Multiple Sclerosis than certainties and regularities. I think that’s one of the many reasons getting diagnosed with MS is so frightening. There is no one blood test or examination that can be given to prove someone has MS. To get an official MS diagnosis, you have to take all the tests that are out there, for diseases and infections with similar symptoms, and rule those out before you can definitively know you have the disease. One of the few things that does show actual evidence of damage of the central nervous system is an MRI. MRI’s are one of the very few things that are a certainty when diagnosing and tracking the progression of this disease, which I think is why they give me such bad anxiety. MS is extremely unpredictable and comes with no assurances, but this test actually shows the damage that it has done and can track its progression.
Previous MRI experience
From my first MRI in August 2013, which showed nine lesions, to May 2015, I had five MRIs — each of which gave me severe anxiety and caused many sleepless nights. The actual scan gives me anxiety because I’m stuck in a loud tube and unable to move. The days leading up to the test and the hours following it leave me in a bundle of nerves up until I receive my results. Every MRI I had during those two years showed two or more lesions, which requires a medication switch. So in November 2015, on my third medicine, I had my sixth MRI in two years. For the first time, that MRI showed no new lesions, which not only meant that I did not have to modify my medication, but that it was actually slowing down the progression! A wave of relief came over me because for the first time since my diagnosis, there was no evidence of additional damage. I had my seventh MRI six months later, which showed only one new plaque, so I was able to stay on Tecfidera AND it meant I got to wait a whole year until my next MRI. Some might think at this point, that I’m an MRI pro and that it shouldn’t make me nervous anymore, but it is quite the opposite. I had so many disappointing MRI results in the past, and because I know that this disease can be so unpredictable, I don’t think I will ever feel “comfortable” going into an MRI or waiting to get their results.
This month, I have my first MRI in a year and am just as nervous as I was my first time. This being my eighth in 3 ½ years, I have figured out a few ways to make this daunting test a little easier. Here are some tips that I have learned over the course of the last several years, and I hope these will help others who are experiencing similar anxiety around this.
Tips for MRI Anxiety
- Food – Eat a good meal before the MRI. I have tiny veins and whenever I get an IV put in or get blood drawn, I have come to expect multiple needle pokes. Eating a good meal before my MRI not only helps the nurse find my vein for the IV, but also keeps my stomach content throughout the MRI. My MRIs are usually an hour to an hour and a half long, and the last thing I want is my stomach growling the whole time I’m in the tube.
- H2O – Drink a decent amount of water but not A LOT. When I get my blood drawn, I drink as much water as I possibly can since dehydration makes it harder to find veins. When I go get an MRI, I drink enough water to be hydrated, but not too much where I have to pee after 30 minutes. Trust me, you do not want to be stuck in an MRI machine with a full bladder.
- Bathroom – Make sure to go to the bathroom right before you go into the scan!
- Sedative – If you get claustrophobic, talk to your neurologist about taking a sedative. My neurologist prescribes me Valium to take 45 minutes before my MRI to help calm my nerves and relax me. The more relaxed you are, the less you move around, which helps speed up the scan. If you move, the technicians won’t be able to get a clear image and might have to redo a few images. The calmer you are, the better. If you are prescribed a sedative, you will not be able to drive home, so make sure you bring someone with you!
- Blanket – I always ask for a blanket so that I’m not shivering or uncomfortable. The blankets are always heated which adds an extra level of coziness.
- Comfortable clothes – You can’t have any metal on your body (including jewelry) when you go into a scan. This means if your bra clasp is metal, you’ll have to go in braless. I always wear a sports bra or bralette with no metal. I get cold easily, so I wear yoga pants and socks to stay warm.
- MUSIC – the biggest thing that helps me during the scan is music. I love music and have always used it as a way to express my feelings. When the technician asks me if I would like to listen to music, I automatically respond, “Yes.” When they ask me what Pandora station I want, without hesitation, every time my answer is Ben Howard. His music is so soothing and relaxing, and his voice calms me every time. MRI machines are extremely loud with banging and buzzing and vibrations, so listening to music with headphones is really helpful. My first MRI, the technician didn’t ask me what station I wanted, and put it on Today’s Hits. Let’s just say Ke$ha singing “Tik Tok” in my ears was the opposite of calming. Make sure to ask for a particular station that you know will ease your nerves.
- Eyes Closed – I have made the mistake of opening my eyes a few times while in the machine and have immediately regretted it each time. I get extremely anxious and feel claustrophobic when I open my eyes. The combination of seeing the tight space, knowing I can’t move, and seeing the surface coil around my head (a plastic cage-like helmet for the brain) really makes me panic. I try to keep them closed the entire time – from when I lay down on the table until they pull me out. While my eyes are shut, I try to visualize the calming words from Ben Howard. I have watched all of his music videos a million times, so I try to replay those relaxing videos in my head.
- Communication – There have been times when my scan has taken an hour and a half, and when they pull me out it’s felt like twenty minutes – those are always the most pleasant experiences; however, that doesn’t happen often. There’s nothing more anxiety provoking than being in that tube and having no idea how much longer you have left. There is a microphone and speaker in your machine to help ease that pain. Your technician will probably tell you when you’re halfway done, have five minutes remaining, etc. If he/she doesn’t do this, ask them to communicate how much longer you have left. I love hearing “you’re halfway done” after feeling like I’ve been in the machine for an eternity.
Even after the test is over, I continue to stress about my results. I usually receive mine in 24 hours or less, but the anxiety lingers around until I hear them. If MRI’s give you anxiety and stress, you are not alone. I don’t think I’ll ever get comfortable having scans, but I have figured out ways to ease my nerves some and make the process a little smoother. Fingers crossed for a good scan this month and best wishes to any of those reading who have one on the horizon!