Tips for Staying Calm During an MRI or Another Imaging Scan

Has your doctor recommended you get a medical imaging test, such as an MRI or CT scan? You may be anxious about what the test will find. You also may be nervous about the test itself.

MRIs—magnetic resonance imaging scans—are often the most anxiety-producing because they take more time, are usually conducted in confining tubes and involve loud noises. Other scans, such as CT (computed tomography) and PET (positron emission tomography), are done in a more open, doughnut-shaped machine, but like MRIs, you must hold very still during the scan, sometimes in an awkward position.

If your doctor orders one of these tests, it’s important to get it done. They can help your doctor diagnose or rule out a wide range of conditions and injuries.

For those worried about staying calm during a scan, UNC Health radiologist Genevieve Woodard, MD, PhD, and UNC Health radiology technologist Amanda Sturm, BSRT, offer this advice.

Know What to Expect Before Your Scan

Be sure to ask questions before your scan. The more you know, the better prepared you will be.

“Having information ahead of time helps relieve anxiety,” Dr. Woodard says. “It helps patients know what to anticipate and expect.”

Talk to your doctor about what kind of scan they have ordered and why it is necessary. Ask if you will need any kind of dye or contrast, which are sometimes used to help a radiologist see different parts inside your body, and whether you will drink a solution or have an IV.

You can ask how long the scan will take. Every scan is different, so your doctor may not be able to give you an exact time, but you’ll have a general idea about how long you will be in the equipment.

Online resources may help you prepare, but make sure you are watching a video or reading about a scan that is like the one you will receive.

“There are even YouTube videos with MRI noises,” Sturm says “If you know what to expect, it’s not so startling. You know the noise isn’t going to hurt you.”

People describe MRI noises in different ways, such as a jackhammer, train or race car engine. You will be wearing earplugs and possibly headphones during the scan to prevent hearing damage.

If you think you will be very anxious during a scan, talk to your doctor about medicines that can reduce your anxiety, Dr. Woodard says.

What It’s Like to Get an MRI or Another Imaging Scan

When you arrive for your scan, you will answer screening questions to make sure your medical team knows if you have a pacemaker, a spinal cord stimulator or another implanted device.

You will change into a gown that has no metal fasteners and allows you to get into the best position for the images. An IV may be started for contrast dyes, or you may be given a solution to drink. In some cases, you’ll have both.

Your scan will be done by a medical technologist who is trained to conduct the tests. A radiologist, a doctor who specializes in reading medical images, will review your scan and write a report that will be available to you and your doctor. Your doctor will read the results and go over them with you days after your scan. The technologist cannot give you information during or immediately after the test.

The technologist will explain whether your head or feet are going into the tube first, and whether you will be on your back, side or stomach, lying flat or inclined. Uncomfortable positions may be required for the best view, but they shouldn’t be painful.

“Some MRI positions are really challenging,” Dr. Woodard says. “If you’re getting a breast MRI, you’re lying down on your stomach for 45 minutes and can’t move. If it’s joints or muscles that already have an injury, putting them in the best position for a scan can be uncomfortable.”

Tell your technologist how you feel before the scan begins, Sturm says. “If your shoulder is hurting or your chin is hurting, let us know.”

Patients are given a signaling device—often a ball to squeeze—if they need to stop, she says.

“Always ask questions, and stop us if something doesn’t feel right,” Sturm says. “If you don’t understand why something is happening, we’ll explain it. We don’t want you to worry.”

Shaking During an MRI or Another Imaging Scan

Anxiety during an imaging scan can cause some people to tremble or shiver, Sturm says.

“That adrenaline shake is tough,” she says. “We give them time to let the fight-or-flight response dissipate. We give them warm blankets, try to calm them down. Many people are able to go back in and finish the scan.”

During the scan, the technologist can talk to the patient and hear responses through a speaker in the device.

“We’ll talk to patients between sequences to let them know how long the next sequence will be,” Sturm says. “But during the imaging, we don’t want them talking because it can make them move and make images blurry.”

Sturm tries to get patients to focus on completing the test instead of worrying about their health.

“It’s easy for us to confuse fear of exam results with fear of the exam itself,” she says.

Ways to Ease Anxiety During an MRI or Imaging Scan

Your technologist will give you earplugs to protect you from the noise. You may also get headphones so you can listen to music or calming background noise if available. Some clinics have goggles that allow patients, especially children, to watch cartoons or movies.

Many patients feel better keeping their eyes closed or touching the table under them for a sense of stability. Some technologists will put a washcloth or small towel over patients’ eyes so they won’t see the tight space around them.

Other calming suggestions include:

  • Concentrating on your breathing
  • Meditating or praying
  • Singing silently to yourself
  • Thinking about how you’d like to rearrange or redecorate a room in your home
  • Designing a vegetable or flower garden
  • Going through the alphabet in your mind and naming all the animals, flowers or foods you can think of that start with each letter
  • Sleeping

Infants are usually swaddled, which limits movement. Some adults and children may need sedation medication.

Waiting for Results from an Imaging Scan

Ask your doctor how long it will be before you get test results. Remember, your technologist does not read or interpret images for patients.

Results may be available to you through your electronic patient records portal before you talk with your doctor, but these can be confusing to understand without training, Dr. Woodard says. Try not to assume the worst or turn to the internet to try to decipher your results.

If you do open your results, she recommends having someone supportive with you in case you see something that concerns you. Try not to open results on a weekend when your doctor is not available to answer urgent questions.

And remember the big picture, Sturm says: Scans are increasingly effective at revealing what is causing illnesses, diseases and pain so doctors can provide the best treatment.

“We can scan every single body part,” Sturm says. “A radiologist can see irregularities in soft tissue. They often can see not only if there’s a mass, but they can potentially determine what it’s made of—whether it’s water or fat or something else. There are some fractures that don’t show up on X-rays, but an MRI can show inflammatory processes in bone, so the radiologist can better evaluate what might be going on.”

When you consider the benefits of scans, the temporary discomfort and anxiety may not seem as insurmountable.

“We get so bogged down about what bothers us as patients—the noise, the tube—that we forget how amazing it is that we can do this and not have to do invasive procedures. Your technologist is your ally and is there to assist and support you while working to obtain the best imaging possible,” Sturm says.

If you are scheduled to have an MRI or another medical scan, talk to your doctor about what to expect, or find one near you.