Helping a Claustrophobic Loved One Get Through an MRI

If you’ve ever tried to talk someone into doing something they didn’t want to do – whether it was a toddler refusing to eat lima beans or an aging parent unwilling to give up driving – you know it can be an uphill battle. The convincing can be even trickier when fear is involved. That’s why getting a loved one (be it your wife, husband, mother, father, brother, sister or child) to get a needed MRI can be so difficult. For someone with claustrophobia who is afraid of confined spaces, an MRI exam can seem impossible. Even when a doctor says it’s necessary. So what can you do to help your loved one through it?

DON’T: Act Afraid

Dr. Todd Farchione of Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders says the last thing you want to do is act afraid yourself. Your loved one will pick up on your fear and it can intensify what they’re feeling. Seeing other people be afraid of the situation, whether a parent or someone else you are with, can trigger your own fear. The best message to send? Reassurance that they can cope.

In fact, technologists at RAYUS who help people through MRI exams every day say that 90% of patients who get through the first 90 seconds will make it all the way through their MRI. Just 90 seconds! So offering the right support and encouragement before the exam and getting through the first few moments is all it takes. Dr. Farchione says the key is to help them buy enough time for their system to realize that there is no real threat here.

DON’T: Minimize Their Fear

It may seem natural to tell a frightened loved one, “There’s nothing to worry about!” While you may not realize it, that message can make it worse. Dr. Farchione explains, “The more that the person tries to stay calm, it can actually have a paradoxical effect, where they say, ‘OK, I’m not staying calm. What does that mean?’ And then it can build on itself very quickly.”

That escalating fear can turn into a panic attack. If you tell yourself you can’t feel afraid or anxious, that you’re being a whimp or silly, what you’re really doing is intensifying the emotion. Instead, Dr. Farchione says you have to be able to say, “I’m feeling fear and I’m OK with that.” So if you’re supporting a loved one through his or her fear, validate what they’re feeling. Say something like, “If you’ve never been through an MRI before, how can you be expected not to be a little freaked out about the big machine that makes loud noises in which you’re sort of enclosed?” Once you’ve validated the fears, it’s time to dive into understanding the danger.

DO: Explain How it Works

Claustrophobia isn’t easy to get over says Traci Meyers, Chief Technologist at RAYUS’s Maple Grove, MN center. She’s seen plenty of patients come in petrified. “It’s pretty common to hear, ‘I didn’t sleep last night I was so nervous about the MRI’.” When she senses fear, Traci immediately shifts into explanation mode. She wants to make sure the patient understands every step of the exam and exactly what to expect.

“Our job is to just put them at ease, get them comfortable, and communicate with them a lot.”

Beforehand, she explains the technologist call button each patient holds through the exam. She also tells them about the headphones they’ll be wearing and how she’ll be talking to them the whole time. She’s heard enough “horror” stories from patients who have been scanned somewhere else. Each time a patient tells her about being scared to death or having a terrible experience, Traci is more committed to helping every patient coming through the door make it through their MRI.

In addition to letting your technologist explain it to you, Dr. Farchione says it’s a good idea to do some homework yourself. Go ahead and find out:

Having answers to these questions can help you set your thinking straight and diminish anxiety.

DO: Trust the Experts

Booking your exam appointment at an imaging center that has a highly-trained, skilled team can also help alleviate anxiety. When Traci is talking to claustrophobic patients, she says she puts an emphasis on her experience.

“I make sure the patient understands that we’re well trained at our jobs and we’re going to do everything that we can to get them through the study, but at the same time, we’re going to make sure their comfort and their care is what’s most important to us. We don’t want to force them into anything they’re not comfortable doing. We always do what’s best for the patient.”

If your loved one is feeling anxious, try reminding them that they are putting themselves in the hands of an MRI technologist who has done this many times before. They know what they’re doing. Dr. Farchione suggests also reminding them that they aren’t alone. Try telling your loved one that, “There have been many people before you that have been able to go into that scanner and manage that situation and deal with that situation.” Read more step-by-step advice on facing your fear of an MRI exam from Dr. Farchione here.

Quote and image of Dr. Farchione

DO: Find the Right MRI Machine

Finally, not all MRI machines are created equal. The tube-shape of a traditional MRI may induce fear, but it isn’t your only option. You have choices like these:

4 Types of MRIs

Doing some research and finding the right MRI machine can help make the experience more comfortable, especially for a patient who has anxiety about the exam. Traci suggests talking to the schedulers about it when you call to book an appointment and make sure to mention claustrophobia. “They’re going to help to provide you with the machine that’s going to be the best fit.” Taking the time to find out what’s best for your loved one’s unique situation may be the most important step of all.

Click here for more tips on conquering claustrophobia fears.