Wednesday, 23 July 2014

What an MRI Scan is Really Like

A couple of Saturdays ago, I had an MRI scan, just three days after I met with a private Doctor for the first time. We rang the hospital to arrange an appointment that same day, and had an appointment confirmed a day later! I honestly can't believe how fast and efficient the process was.

It was my first MRI scan through private health care, but my third scan so far in my adult life, so I thought I'd write about what an MRI scan is like for anybody who might be unsure of what to expect from their upcoming scan. I know how nerve-racking the wait can be, especially when you don't know exactly what to expect.

On Arrival At The Hospital

My appointment was at a private hospital in Cheltenham, first thing on a Saturday morning, and I was asked to arrive twenty-minutes early. I had to register my details with a receptionist (just the usual contact information, date of birth, and so on), and was asked to pay before the scan. The MRI scan was only £228 at this hospital, and I was surprised by how inexpensive it was. Before I did my research, I thought MRIs would cost thousands, but they seem to cost anywhere between £350-£1000 (or more) in the UK, depending on the hospital and region. I don't know why they vary so much, but I certainly didn't expect mine to be so inexpensive. Apparently it was a third of the cost of an MRI at the hospital I'd been referred from!

After I paid, I took a seat in the waiting room, and was soon called by a nurse, who took me through to an interview room.

The Pre-Scan Interview

Before you can have an MRI, a nurse or radiologist will run through a lot of routine questions with you to make sure it's safe for you to have a scan. It's basically the same process whether you have the scan on the NHS, or at a private hospital. 

You're likely to be asked for details about the medical issues which have led to your scan; like where your pain is, do you get pins and needles, and how long you've had it

You will almost certainly be asked:

- If there's a chance you might be pregnant.
- If you're breast feeding.
- If you have diabetes.
- If you have a heart condition.
- If you have asthma or breathing difficulties.
- If you have had surgery recently.
- If you have any metal in your body (metal plates, shrapnel etc).
- If you have piercings or tattoos.

And on and on they go. They're very thorough with their questions. Obviously, I'm not medically trained, so I don't know what the dangers are with certain medical conditions, but they will run through all of that with you.

I'm fortunate not to have any other health issues than the ones relating to my injuries, and answered "no" to almost everything on the check list. I do have tattoos, though, but I've never experienced any problems from them during a scan. Most tattoos done in this day and age aren't an issue, but some older tattoos contain lead paints which may not be safe to be scanned. I was told if I felt my tattoos tingling or burning while I was in the machine I needed to let them know immediately. (They were absolutely fine).

What Not To Wear 

All piercings have to be removed, along with all jewellery, keys, coins, and clothing containing metals. This obviously includes under-wired bras, clothing with zips, metal hair accessories, and glasses. 

It's best to leave your jewellery at home and go to the scan in clothes that don't contain any metals, otherwise you'll have to take it all off and change in to a hospital gown. I went to the scan wearing leggings, a comfortable dress without zips, and ballet pumps that  I could quickly slip on and off. I only had to remove my bra, shoes, and glasses for the scan. You want your outfit to be as convenient as possible, and comfortable to wear. There's no use going to your scan in tight, fitted clothes that will just be uncomfortable while you're lying down; you won't be able to move to readjust anything until the scan is over.

After the nurse had gone through her check list with me, she sent me to change, and I was directed to another waiting room to wait until I was called through. This waiting room was outside a row of changing rooms, and also had lockers where patients can store their belongings during their scans. 

Five Minute Curtain Call

After a little while, I was called by the radiologist, who double-checked all the questions with me, and then took me through to the MRI room where I would have my scan.

What The Room and MRI Scanner Looked Like

It was a large room with white walls, and no windows, except for one which led in to the room where the radiologist would control the MRI scanner and monitor the scans.

In the centre of the otherwise stark room, was an enormous circular-shaped machine, with a gap in the centre- a bit like a giant macaron with the filling removed- and a rectangular bed connected to it at the front- similar to this one below, but larger.

Getting Prepared For Your Scan By The Radiologist

The lady took me over to the scanner and ran through exactly what would happen, and then asked if I had any questions. I didn't, but I made sure to tell her I was claustrophobic, and although I thought I'd be okay, there was a chance I'd panic during the scan, like last time.

I was then asked to remove my shoes and glasses, and lie down on the bed. I never lie flat on my back, and it's funny that I'd forgotten how uncomfortable it can be. She made me a little more comfortable by placing a pillow under my head, a wedge-shaped mattress under my legs, and rolled up towels under my arms.

She then placed a plastic cage over my torso which would take some images of the area being scanned (my spine, pelvis, and sacrum). I was allowed to put my arms inside or outside of the cage, so I kept them on the outside, which seemed like the less claustrophobic option. I was also advised to rest my head to one side, which I did, so that  I wouldn't have to look at the ceiling just inches from my face and panic about being trapped.

She placed a squeezable alarm in my hand that I could squeeze to alert her if something was wrong or I needed to stop, and popped a pair of heavy headphones over my ears. The headphones are needed to protect your ears from all the noise the machine makes during the scans (it's pretty deafening), but also so the radiologist can communicate with you through them and visa versa. I was asked if I'd like to listen to the radio "to give me something else to think about", and was given a choice of radio stations, although I actually couldn't hear it during the scans because the machine was so loud. I presume she forgot to turn up the volume. Some hospitals will let you bring your own music on CD to listen to, so pop a CD in your bag, just in case.

3, 2, 1... We Go Live

Once all of that was executed, the radiologist slowly directed the bed in to the machine, so that my entire body was in the centre of the giant circular-shaped part (feet first). My head only had to go a couple of inches in to the machine, but I presume placement of your body depends on which part of your body is being scanned. She checked I was okay- I was a little panicked- and then she left the room to begin the scans.

An MRI Scan Through The Eyes of a Claustrophobic Person

A moment later, she spoke to me through the intercom to tell me the first scan would begin and that it would take a couple of minutes. Then the deafening drone of the scanner erupted to life. An MRI scan is incredibly loud, even with a pair of headphones over your ears. The machine blasts out a repetitive sequence of noise, like a growling siren, and it's so loud the vibrations tend to pulse through your body, the way music does at a rock concert when you're close to the stage or a speaker. The noise isn't excruciating to the ear, but it can feel a bit overwhelming after a while. The best thing to do is distract yourself as best you can. Concentrate on what you can see outside of the machine; day dream about the good times; think about something you're looking forward to, and remember to breathe!

I had a few scans to lie through this time, ranging from a couple of minutes to what felt like fifteen, and the radiologist calmly told me when each scan was about to begin, and when each one had ended.

During a scan, you have to lie as still as you possibly can because the slightest movement can blur the images. It might seem like an easy task, but it can be difficult when your heart is racing and your breathing is heavy because you're panicked. I always find my nerves start twitching involuntarily during these scans, too. I had to redo one of the long scans because I started panicking because my mouth was so dry I couldn't swallow; and as much as I tried to calm myself I got a bit freaked out and couldn't stay completely still. I could've kicked myself for making a claustrophobic experience even longer.

Open MRI Scans Vs. Closed MRI Scans

An Open MRI is supposed to be ideal for people with claustrophobia, because as the name would suggest, it's not as enclosed as the more familiar MRIs which are done in a very narrow tunnel. I didn't find it as terrifyingly claustrophobic as my last scan, but it was still a bit too claustrophobic to me. I was lying on a bed in the centre of a circle at least eight feet in diameter, perhaps even ten, with the ceiling just a few inches above my head. Both ends of the scanner are open most of the way along, as are parts of the sides... but the gaps only seem about a foot or so high when you're lying inside it, which was still too enclosed to pacify my claustrophobia. There was an open gap to the  right of my head, so I did my best to concentrate on the wall beyond it. If I can see I can easily escape from an enclosed situation, I can usually calm myself down long enough to get through it. This time my mouth was so bone dry I literally couldn't swallow my fear, which I think freaked me out more than being trapped. I often get like that when I don't have full control over my own mobility.

If you're claustrophobic or have a larger build, I would definitely recommend having an open MRI over a closed MRI. There is much more space around you, and you will probably find it much less traumatic than the closed MRI. I've had two closed MRIs in my adult life, and trust me when I say it's not a pleasant experience. The procedure is still the same, but the bed goes in to a very narrow tunnel, and unless you are super skinny, your arms and shoulders will touch the sides, and your head will be a couple of inches from the top of the tube.  It's a horrible experience if you struggle with enclosed spaces. If you don't, you will probably find an MRI scan to be a piece of cake; the scans really aren't anything to fear... the worst part is not knowing what the scans might diagnose when you don't know what's wrong.

I actually had a panic attack during an enclosed MRI a couple of years ago. It only took a few seconds in the tunnel for me to freak out. I had to get out of the machine, which pissed off one of the technicians. He was an absolute twat, though. The other technician turned me around so I went back in feet first (which meant my head didn't have to travel far in to the tube), and I did my best to concentrate on the little bit of ceiling I could see to distract myself. It was not a nice experience. I didn't know about open MRIs until after that scan, but if I'd known earlier I would have made sure to ask for one instead.

Apparently there are also MRI scanners which scan you standing up, but I can't imagine how anybody could stand completely still for long enough to be scanned.

How Long My Scans Took

My scans were supposed to be about fifteen minutes long, but in the end I was in the machine for about half an hour. (The length of the scans can vary depending on what needs to be scanned. During my first MRI, it took about an hour).

When It's Over

Once it was over, the radiologist came back in to the room and brought the bed back out of the scanner. I was so glad to get out of the machine! I made sure to apologise for panicking and giving her more work, but she was very kind and patient with me.

I was free to go and get redressed, and then had to sit in the main waiting area while my MRI scans were being uploaded on to a disc, which was ready within fifteen minutes. I was asked to pass the disc on to my Doctor on my next appointment.

What Happens Next?

The radiologist will send a written report of the results to your Doctor, but some hospitals will give you a disc of the scans to give to your Doctor, too. Others will pass the images on directly.

You'll then need to make an appointment with the Doctor who is treating you to get your results; you'll need to ask your Doctor or the radiologist about when you should book the appointment. The length of time you'll have to wait for your results will vary from place to place.

How Long Did I Have To Wait For My Results?

I was told my results would be ready within five working days, which they were. In just three, actually. I had my results last Wednesday, just eight days after my first consultation with my new Doctor! (On the NHS, I had to wait two months!)

Thankfully (I guess?) my scans revealed a couple more problems with my spine I didn't know of, so spending money on these scans hasn't been a waste of time. I'm not going to talk about the results now, but I will write a personal post with a little update about the latest happenings soon.

I hope this post has answered any questions you might have about what an MRI scan is really like from a patient's point of view, and given you an idea of what to expect from the appointment. An MRI scan is nothing to be afraid of and the whole experience is worth it when you finally get some answers.

If you have any questions, please don't be afraid to leave me a comment below, although I must add I'm not medically trained at all, and can't legally give you any medical advice. I can only speak from my personal experiences of MRI scans as a patient. If you have any medical questions or concerns regarding your upcoming MRI scan, please contact your Doctor.

Thanks for reading.


  1. This was quite interesting to read, I know my Dad had to have a MRI scan a few years back and found it quite hard. But he is a bigger guy and I suspect it was in an enclosed MRI machine - so I can see why it would be so upsetting. It was a worthwhile exercise if they found a couple of other issues, I hope these are treatable?

  2. My goodness Louise! I didn't know how tight they were, I can't even imagine how tough it would be, you are absolutely right about the technician who was pissed off, he was a twat - this is so informative and a necessary read for anyone about to get one, the patient perspective is always the best one - I hope the results will give you the answers the doctor's need to move you forward x x x

  3. This is a really helpful post Louise :) sorry to hear that you have more problems than initially thought but hopefully this means your closer to answers xx


I love reading all your lovely comments, so don't be afraid to leave me a comment or a question below! I'll do my best to reply ASAP!

Blogger Template Created by pipdig