MRI Redux

When most people go to a doctor, the things they’re most concerned with are either being given a bad prognosis or being subjected to an invasive procedure. I’m not one of those people. Rather, I dread being told that I need yet another MRI.

And so, I decided to expose my fear of going in the tube for a half an hour of terror, hoping that writing about my phobia would help me deal with it more effectively. In two posts, I told my story. Little did anyone know that I was due to have another torture chamber moment at an imaging facility.

By way of background, I have let it be known to every person I know that MRIs frightened me to no end. I never knew I was claustrophobic. When skiing, I experienced some fear of heights. It was easy to deal with, as I never stood at the top of a trails and looked down steep slopes and huge moguls. I just jumped in. It worked like a charm.

An MRI, I hate to say, reminds me of a coffin. The noise it makes is ridiculously loud (unlike a coffin). The operators can’t believe that a tough guy like me acts like a hysterical sissy when I see the behemoth machine. I once was in an MRI and begged to be released, much to the chagrin of the operator.

I detected something different this time. The forms you must fill out before the procedure now ask specifically if you are claustrophobic. Thankfully, the medical profession is recognizing that more than a few patients are afraid of closed spaces. I checked yes, very. The day before the test, one of the assistants actually called me to ask me if I was taking a sedative before the procedure. I told her I was not.

In my last post, I indicated that my fears begin weeks before the procedure. I think about being stuffed into the tube, which is not really wide enough for me. I lose sleep, have anxiety attacks and so on. I decided I had to do something in an attempt to alleviate my fears.

So, I devised a three part plan. I practiced for the ordeal, kind of like getting ready for the big game. I stayed perfectly still on the floor with my eyes closed for 10, 20, 30 minutes, which is what I would be doing in a few days when I was tested. The second thing I did was meditate and try to convince myself that I could relax for an extended period of time without moving. My yoga instructor helped me greatly (thanks C.). And finally, I ensured that the imaging facility had prism glasses that would enable me to see backwards out of the MRI tube. This gadget is heaven-sent.

When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised that the procedure would only be 15 minutes, if I did everything I was told and behaved myself. The bad news was that it was a “participating MRI,” as opposed to a procedure where you lay still like a corpse.

I had to repeatedly exhale and hold my breath. I prefer to lay still and think of nothing except when I would exit the tube. Every time I held my breath, it felt like two or three minutes passed, when in reality, it was 10-20 seconds. I goofed one time and was ordered to do it again (my only transgression).

Well, guess what? I performed without a hitch. I was totally cool and courageous, if I do say so myself. No hysterics on my part, and I got MRIed like a big boy. I bumped elbows with the MRI operator, and he said I did a good job and would see me next year. He probably thought I was a pathetic wimp. All my preparation was well worth the time and effort. Even more importantly, my test was perfect.

If anyone is going to take an MRI and has fears, you may contact me, and I will give you a pep talk. It only took me 20 years to finally overcome my fear of the MRI bogeyman.

Practicing For An MRI Test

This is the second time that I’m writing about my experiences with MRI procedures. Why, you ask? Because every time I have an issue, my doctors order me to take another MRI. Then, if they see anything else that is suspicious, they order another one.

In the future, I’m going to “practice” for future MRI tests, just like I would for any test. Hopefully, this will help me endure the rigors and discomfort of the ordeal. More on this later.

Frankly, I have plenty of time to partake in these disturbing procedures in an effort to stay healthy. But my fear of going into the tube has grown materially over the years.

Why are the machines so noisy? Why are they so small? An average sized man barely fits inside. The chance of claustrophobia is increased exponentially because of the way these damn machines are constructed. Why does it take 30 minutes, or more, to take a few pictures? We’ve had the technological ability to go to the moon for decades, yet it takes 1/2 an hour of torture to determine the extent of an injury or malady.

A few years ago, I was waiting to take an MRI in the anteroom. Of course, I was nervous as hell. Suddenly, Justin Tuck, who was then a defensive lineman for the New York Giants appeared, having just gotten an MRI. Justin is a Notre Dame graduate (as I am), so it was pretty exciting to meet him.

My immediate observation was, this guy is humongous. He appeared to be 1 1/2 times my size. I thought, I can barely fit into the machine, how does he manage it? Really, why is it so important to squeeze patients in and make them feel uncomfortable? Someone should start a movement to make MRIs more spacious.

CT scans and MRI’s are procedures that capture images within your body. The biggest difference is that MRIs use radio waves and CT scans use X-rays. MRIs are a principle way for doctors to view potentially dysfunctional parts of your body. By the way, CT tubes are much smaller, and the procedure is only a couple of minutes.

A constant imaging field and radio frequencies bounce off the body’s fat and water molecules. Radio waves are transmitted to a receiver in the machine, which is translated into an image of the body that can be used to diagnose problems.

The MRI machine is loud, really loud. Usually, a patient is offered earplugs or headphones to make the experience more tolerable. You have to be still in the MRI for an extended period of time for the images to be clear.

I’ve had all sorts of adventures relating to MRIs. Once, I needed an MRI for my shoulder. I tore my rotator cuff. My surgeon said I needed an MRI, and I refused. The doc is a friend of mine, and he told me I had to go down into the MRI torture chamber and take some pictures or he couldn’t fix my shoulder. I told him I was frightened. He called me a number of derogatory names in front of several people. They referred to me being a chicken.

I told him that it was no laughing matter. I said, I would do the MRI under three conditions. By this time, a crowd had assembled, and everybody was laughing as my shoulder pulsed.

The doc asked, what are the conditions? I said I want to be unconscious, not just with a sedative, but with general anesthesia. He asked me if I was serious and looked at me like I was out of my mind. I said yes. He agreed. Everyone was hysterical laughing once again.

He asked, what else? I told him I wanted to be asleep before I entered the MRI anteroom. More laughing. He said okay. He asked what else? I said, I wanted to be unconscious after the procedure, so I wouldn’t see the MRI machine. More laughing. The doc agreed.

Several weeks later, I showed up for the MRI, I was knocked out, and I got my pictures taken. It probably cost me triple the amount to pay for the anesthesiologist, but it was worth it.

I really had to do something to make the MRI process more bearable. I went to an imaging place for another MRI. They said they had no anesthesiologists on staff when I told him I wanted to be knocked out. I got up and started to walk out. The staff put a full court press on me trying to get me to stay. It was another crazy scene.

One of the nurses said they had prism glasses that enabled a patient to look backwards out of the machine to alleviate any claustrophobia. To make a long story short, it worked pretty well.

I now have my own glasses just in case the imaging place doesn’t have them. You can buy them online.

I recently was told I needed another MRI. I started to feel tremendous anxiety even armed with my glasses. I’ve been stalling about taking the MRI trying to psych myself up. The thought of lying in the tube for so long was weighing heavily on me.

I decided I should “practice” for my 30-minute MRI encounter. So, for a week, I’m going to lay down every day somewhere in my apartment that feels confining with my prism glasses. I will then try to keep still for 30 minutes without moving.

I’ll bet I’m the only patient who has been practicing for an MRI. Wish me luck.

I Hate MRIs

With age we are subjected to more intrusive medical testing that can sometimes be quite disconcerting. Among the worst for me is Magnetic Resonance Imaging, aka MRI.

An MRI is no big deal unless you’re claustrophobic, which is a fear of closed-in spaces. Little did I know ten or fifteen years ago that I would be so creeped-out by being stuffed into an MRI tube for 15 to 30 minutes.

MRIs are prescribed for many medical issues. The obvious ones are bone and tendon injuries. But they are also used to examine other “soft” parts of you body such as your heart and even your prostate. In most cases docs are able to obtain clear images of impaired body parts and then decide the best treatment.

Men and women are individually subjected to examinations that are horrible. We all know what they are. But an MRI is not biased. It’s a major event for members of both sexes who don’t relish being slid into a tube that is reminiscent of a coffin. I never knew I had this affliction until my first MRI.

Different MRI imaging requires that the patient be deeper or less deep into the tube. For some leg injuries your head may be at the end of the tube so the experience is not so confining. For others, like for your head and organs in your torso, you need to be further into the machine.

It’s unclear about how many people are claustrophobic. One source I found indicated that 5-7% of the world’s population is frightened of tight places. This number probably includes only those that are terrified. I’ll bet the number is much higher for people like me who are moderately terrified.

You may be asking yourself why I’m making a big deal about my fear of MRIs. The reason is that they are becoming more prevalent. Without disclosing private medical information, I have been MRI-ed for no less four different parts of my body. Two of them are repetitive (I have them every year). So it was incumbent on me to find a way to survive the MRI experience.

For those of you who have never had an MRI, the machine is massive. Yet the space in the tube is sparse for anyone with any extra bulk, large individuals and athletes. Most MRI’s require you to lie down (usually face up, but sometimes down) on a slab that enables you to be slid into the MRI tube.

An MRI tube is 70 cm, or 27.5 inches, in diameter. The average head of a person is 18cm, or 7 inches, in diameter. So when you’re in the tube there is 20.5 inches between your eyes and the tube. That may seem like a lot, but it’s tight to me.

Depending on the type of scan, you may be required to stay in the MRI for 15 to 30 minutes. You must lie perfectly still or you are penalized with more minutes. Staying still and looking straight up at the tube only a few inches away is difficult. During my first MRI, my head was at the edge of the tube, so I could see out. I barely managed to stay in the machine for just over 30 minutes by counting the seconds.

After my first MRI I swore I would never do another without assistance. I was unsure about what that might entail. Sure enough I injured my shoulder. I figured that I would need an MRI and that it would require me to be deep in the tube. I was having nightmares about this prospect.

The orthopedic doctor who saw me is a good friend. He was attending to several people in the hallway with a large entourage of residents. Before I could say anything he told me to go and have an MRI done immediately in the bowels of the hospital. I told him I was unable to do MRIs. He said I had to have an MRI. This went on for a few minutes, and after a few insults directed at me, and a lot of laughing directed at me among his minions, I agreed to try.

I went to the MRI area, which was in a dungeon-like area in an underground space. I suspect the hospital administrators kept all of their torture equipment in this place. I slid into the machine and immediately freaked out. I trundled back up to see the doc with my tail between my legs.

The doctor made some derogatory remarks about my manhood, which made his minions go hysterical. In the meantime I stood there in pain. He said he must have an MRI to do the surgery. I thought about it and proposed a compromise. I would do the MRI under three conditions. The doc rolled his eyes and the sycophants were waiting anxiously.

One, I wanted general anesthesia, not a sedative. I wanted to be unconscious. The doc rolled his eyes again and said OK.

Two, I didn’t want to see the MRI because it frightened me. So I was to be knocked out before I went into the MRI room. More eye rolling, but he said OK.

What else the doc asked. I said I didn’t want to see the MRI after I was done. Everybody but me was getting a kick out of my stand-up performance. He agreed.

Everything went smoothly. I was treated like a surgical patient, sedated and had the MRI. Of course it cost three times as much because an anesthesiologist was needed.

What I should also tell you is that the MRI is really noisy further adding to the terror of the experience. It bangs and shakes. It’s not a quiet and smooth-running piece of equipment. The other thing is the technician asks you if you want to listen to music. I always say yes but it doesn’t help.

My journey was not over. I figured I needed to do something drastic to find a way to get through an MRI without having a nervous breakdown. More of my doctors wanted me to have them every year.

I was told to have my torso MRI-ed by another doctor. I figured it would put me deeper into the tube once again. I was frantic. The doc sent me to an imaging place, which much to my surprise didn’t have an anesthesiologist on staff. This meant that I could not receive general anesthesia. I told them I couldn’t do it. But the technicians were persistent in their efforts to get me to saddle up.

To make a long story short they told me one of their associates had invented eyeglasses with a prism that would enable me to see out of the tube while I was laying on my back. Bingo. It worked. I immediately offered to buy the makeshift glasses, but was turned down.

Eventually I found a pair online, but most of the MRI places now have them. I still dread climbing into the machines but at least I have a plan to get myself through the ordeal.