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Does Claustrophobia Affect a Radiology Procedure?

Many people experience claustrophobia. Claustrophobia is an anxiety disorder in which the sufferer has an irrational fear of having no escape or being closed-in. It frequently results in a panic attack and can be triggered by certain stimuli or situations, such as being in a crowded elevator, a small room without any windows, being in an airplane and now it has become an issue with the use of radiologic technology.

What does a magnetic resonance imaging machine look like?

Magnetic resonance imaging, or an MRI, combines a powerful magnet with an advanced computer system and radio waves to produce accurate, detailed pictures of organs and tissues to diagnose a variety of medical conditions and guide patient care.

An open MRI looks kind of like a donut. There are magnets within the donut-shaped machine, and the patient lies inside of the donut-looking hole. Recently, much modern radiology equipment has been made to work around the individual patient, so that if the patient is a larger person or for example has claustrophobia, they can still have an MRI even with their condition. These open MRIs are accommodating to the patient, and are still high-strength and have the ability to achieve accurate images that are needed to help make diagnoses without sacrificing image quality. 

Open MRIs

Some MRIs are referred to as open, but they may only have a shorter and wider cylinder, which provides some comfort but not the same experience as a truly open MRI. Other radiology exams like ultrasounds and CT scans do not provoke claustrophobia the way MRIs do. Radiology exams in general do not provoke claustrophobia with things like ultrasounds or CT scans. People typically associate claustrophobia with an MRI, and that’s really related to a traditional MRI as opposed to the open MRI that is 1.5 tesla and allows radiologists to achieve good patient diagnostic accuracy along with good patient compliance because having the patient comfortable in the machine goes a long way towards getting quality images.

With open MRI, patients are not enclosed, so they can look out into the room, children can bring in stuffed animals and other objects as long as they have no metal in them, and parents can hold toddlers while they are in the scanner. Patients can even bring their own music to listen to with headphones during the exam. This is done for the benefit of the patients, but also because calm patients do not move or fidget as much as patients feeling anxious. This ultimately leads to fewer retakes, sharper images and more accurate results.

How to treat someone with anxiety who needs an MRI

If an open MRI is not available, most facilities will give you a sedative upon request, or even anesthesia which would make you completely unconscious during the procedure. You should schedule an MRI at least a few weeks in advance if you are going to receive a sedative or anesthesia, since the former requires the presence of a registered nurse and the latter an anesthesiologist. This may be offered in pill or intravenous form. If a patient requires additional support with symptoms of anxiety, your referring provider may prescribe a benzodiazapine to take prior to the exam. A benzodiazapine is a class of drugs commonly prescribed to treat anxiety. This intervention is typically sufficient to relax the patient enough to complete the MRI. If you will be taking a benzodiazapine, ensure you have a driver tending to you after your appointment. State-of-the-art MRI scanners also have “motion correction” imaging that allow for a faster examination. That means the patient is in the scanner for a shorter time.