The idea of going in for any medical testing, like a CT scan or an MRI scan, is something that immediately makes most of us uncomfortable. And you are not alone here, between 4 to 30 percent of patients report anxiety when getting an MRI. It is the claustrophobia you are experiencing.
Maybe we’re nervous that the test will reveal something we don’t want to know. Perhaps we’re worried that it will hurt. Many of us don’t even enjoy a regular doctor’s check-up.
If these thoughts sound like the types of worries you’ve dealt with, we want to put your mind at ease. While these fears are natural ones that we all experience, we want to show you that medical testing procedures like MRI and CT scans are nothing to feel nervous about.
Claustrophobia while scanning
If you suffer from claustrophobia or the fear of enclosed spaces, you may be afraid to undergo some important medical tests, such as a CT scan or an MRI.
Laying still in a CT or MRI machine for over an hour can seem like a daunting task, especially if someone suffers from anxiety or claustrophobia.
Many medical procedures require that you stay extremely still. Actual or simulated restraints may be used to keep you still and the treatment site sterile. Plus, certain procedures – such as CT scans – involve sliding into a hollow tube on a gently moving table.
For many claustrophobia sufferers, MRIs cause the most fear. The procedure requires that you lay virtually immobile in a tight, loud chamber for up to an hour. A typical MRI chamber is much bigger and more imposing than a CT tube, and the typical scan time is a lot longer, too.
Some patients become very nervous when undergoing imaging tests that use ionizing radiation, particularly CT scans. The usual fear is that these scans will increase the patient’s risk of future cancers due to radiation exposure.
A wide variety of medical tests and procedures may trigger claustrophobia. Rather than avoid these tests and put your health at risk, you need to learn how to successfully manage your fear.
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How to manage Claustrophobia?
Has your doctor recommended you go for an MRI or CT scan? If your initial reaction is worry and anxiety, you’re not alone.
Since so many people suffer from anxiety during scans, we’ve compiled a list of tips to help those with anxieties overcome them.
Ask Plenty of Questions
Worried you won’t know what to expect during your scan? Nervous that there might be some scary element they haven’t told you about yet? The best way to dispel these fears is by asking questions.
We promise, there’s no question the doctors haven’t heard before, and most of your questions are likely entirely reasonable.
The more answers you get about the procedure, the more your CT scan anxiety will shrink as there are fewer unknowns to contend with.
Voice Your Concerns
Are you worried you won’t know how to stay calm during the MRI? Have you struggled with claustrophobia in the past? Maybe you’re afraid the noise will be too much for you?
Tell your primary care doctor about your phobia. He or she can help you prepare by explaining an upcoming procedure in detail and letting you know what to expect.
Your doctor might prescribe a medication to help with the claustrophobia or provide earplugs to guard against the noise.
Bring Someone Along for Moral Support
Everything is a little better when you have a friend or trusted family member along for the ride. If you’re feeling nervous, why not bring someone else along to provide moral support? They can wait for you in the waiting room and drive you home again afterward.
That way, no matter how anxious you might be feeling, you’ll have someone to help distract you and take your mind off of things.
Remember to Breathe
While MRIs and CT scans don’t hurt, some people may find it nerve-wracking to lie on the table for long periods of time without moving.
One of the best ways you can keep yourself calm and relaxed as you’re lying there is to take deep breaths and let your mind wander. Try meditation or prayer, or simply let your thoughts go somewhere else.
If you slip into a daydream instead of focusing on all the noises and sounds around you, you’ll likely be amazed by how much faster the procedure seems to go.
Ask to see the equipment in advance
For many people, just seeing the machine and how it operates can help to reduce anticipatory anxiety. You may even be permitted to lie on the table or watch a technician turn on the equipment.
Listen to music
Before your test, ask your technician if he or she can turn on music for you. Since MRI machines are loud, music can help block out the noise. Music can also have a calming effect, especially if you request a soothing playlist.
Some facilities like playing scenery images or even movies for patients undergoing anxiety-producing tests.
Some facilities now offer “Open MRIs,” which eliminate the closed chamber. You’ll still be enclosed, but you’ll have access to fresh air and light. If your fear is not severe, this type of MRI may be tolerable.
In addition, alternative types of imaging procedures may be acceptable for some conditions. Discuss the risks and benefits of possible alternatives with your physician.
Low risk of cancer
The good news for CT patients is that these fears are largely overblown. A May 2013 study from the Mayo Clinic confirmed that radiation exposure below 100 MSV (millisievert, a measurement of radiation dose) presents risks that are too low to even be directly measured (1).
CT scans can expose patients to 2-10 MSV, depending on the type of scan. Full-body CT scans will obviously be on the higher end, while more targeted scans like head CTs deliver only about 1-2 MSV.
Even multiple CT scans add up to only 20-30 MSV, which is still considered to be very low radiation exposure.
To put these numbers in perspective, people are exposed to about 2-3 MSV of radiation every year from normal environmental sources.
The bottom line is that CT scans and MRI scans provide doctors and patients with useful information that cannot be obtained from other types of tests. You must know the difference between these two scans.
That said, patients should always ask their doctors and radiologists questions so they understand why CT scans are necessary, what the benefits and risks are, and whether there are any viable alternatives that do not use radiation.
If your claustrophobia is impacting your life, it’s important to seek the advice of a qualified mental health professional.