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MRI and the MS Patient Experience

By Matt Cavallo

Previously, we looked at the five things every MS patient should know about MRIs. These included diagnosing MS, monitoring MS progression, MRI and gadolinium contrast agent, the safety of gadolinium, and open vs closed MRI options. While these are all things that answer why and how MS patients get MRIs, the patient experience is just as important to consider.
As a person living with MS for more than a decade now, and someone who has had approximately 20 previous MRI scans, I am uniquely qualified to discuss MRIs and the MS patient experience. The following will give you some tips and tricks that I have learned during my years of MRI experience.
Shop around – Believe it or not, prices for MRIs (and other medical services) can vary differently from company to company, or location to location. Companies like Healthcare Bluebook can help you find a fair price for your MRI near you. Shopping around is especially important if you have a high deductible insurance plan and you want to limit your out-of-pocket costs.
Scheduling matters – MRI centers can be a bit unpredictable. There are many factors that can delay an appointment. An MRI study is a noisy exam in a small, claustrophobic tube that many people struggle with. If the person before you is squirmy, then they will have to reshoot the images causing delay. When I schedule, I either try to get the first appointment of the day or the first appointment after lunch to avoid any unexpected delays.
Dress appropriately – Leave anything you don’t need to wear at home. When I go to an MRI, I wear workout pants, a T-shirt, and flip-flops. They provide a blanket, so I am not worried about being cold. I leave my wedding ring at home and do not wear any additional watches or jewelry. MRI centers have lockers that you can leave all your valuables, but I prefer to keep that stuff at home and take only what is necessary to my appointment.
Limit liquids – You are going to be in the tube for an hour. If you grab an extra-large drink on the way to the exam, you are probably going to regret it. The last thing you want to do is stop the MRI for a bathroom break. Treat that extra-large drink as a reward for getting through the exam and get it afterwards.
Staying still – For some of us, this is easier said than done. Piggybacking off limiting liquids, anything that can make you uncomfortable in the MRI tube will make you wiggle and twitch. If you wiggle or twitch, the radiologist will have to repeat the image sequence. An MRI is not a typical camera. An image sequence can take several minutes. If you have to repeat those sequences, you will add additional time to being in the tube. Yet, even if you try hard to minimize these distractions, as soon as the study starts your nose will start to itch or you’ll feel the need to take a deep breath or swallow. These are all in your head. Stay as still as possible to avoid adding time in the tube for repeating pictures.
Relax – The most important part of the MRI process is to relax. The MRI tube is claustrophobic. The top of the tube is about four to six inches from the tip of your nose. Your head is put in a cage to keep it still. The machine is loud and makes agonizing sounds. Despite all of this, you have to understand that you are doing this for the benefit of managing your MS.
MRIs, although uncomfortable, give your physician a clearer picture of your disease progression and treatment plan. The MRI scan lasts approximately 40 to 60 minutes for most appointment types, but if you are not relaxed you can make it take much longer. The facility will provide blankets, ear plugs, and in some cases, music. Just close your eyes, relax and it will be over before you know it. Your MS journey will benefit from the clear images your MRI presents.