MRI cheat sheet

recently, more than one of my friends has had a reason to ask me for tips about having an MRI. makes sense, because if hospitals gave out punchcards for them i’d have earned some free ones in the last few years.

behold the jesus christ tumor. named that by my uncle, because when he showed it to his fellow neurosurgeons they often said, "jesus christ!"

behold the jesus christ tumor. named that by my uncle, because when he showed it to his fellow neurosurgeons they often said, “jesus christ!”

i had my first MRI at the age of 36 – it’s the one my ENT sent me for to rule out an acoustic neuroma as the cause of my gradual hearing loss. at this point you likely know that the MRI actually ruled in an AN. i had many MRIs in the 5 weeks i spent in the hospital in phoenix. part of the tumor is still in my head, so i have an annual MRI to catch any regrown early enough to treat it with the non-invasive gamma knife procedure instead of brain surgery. about a year ago i had a sudden increase of some of my neurological symptoms (vertigo, fatigue…), so i had a few bonus MRIs to see what the problem was (my shunt stopped working) and what to do about it (deal with it).

with those MRI credentials, i’ll give you my pointers/advice/knowledge. with a disclaimer: i’ve only ever had head MRIs.

1. ask if you’re having contrast.

sometimes your doctor will want a particular kind of imaging that calls for contrast. i’ve had two kinds – one where they give you an injection of the dye and then pop you back into the machine, and one where they hook you up to an IV and pop you back in with it hooked up. it’s not all that bad, just a good thing to know before you get started.

once before giving me contrast, the MRI tech said, “after a minute or two, it’ll feel like you wet your pants.” if she hadn’t warned me there is no way on earth that i would have believed that i hadn’t just wet my pants. so if you’re having contrast, ask if it’s that kind.

2. having an MRI is kind of like going to the dentist.

MRI machines are loud. and they require you to keep your head really still. for those reason, the tech will put in earplugs then pack you into the headrest with pieces of foam to keep your head from moving. and then he or she will chat with you. you can’t hear a word of it, and you can’t nod along. so be prepared to smile and say things like, “that’s great!” and hope that the tech didn’t just tell you that he’s having his dog put to sleep later that day.

3. say yes to a pillow under your knees, and a blanket.

don’t be a hero! when the tech asks you if you’d like a pillow for under your knees, say, “sure thing!” want a blanket? “that would be great!” you’ll have a little thing to hold and squeeze if you need them to stop for some reason, but i doubt that the tech will appreciate you using it because your toes are cold.

4. come prepared to nap.

when you have a head scan, you’re only in the machine to the top of your chest. the surface you’re laying on is pretty soft, and if you’ve taken my last piece of advice, you’ll be feeling positively comfy. there’s a mirror right above your eyes, angled so you can see out across from you into MRI mission control, but i say close your eyes and imagine that you’re in a loud sensory deprivation tank. you don’t have to do anything but lie there (in fact, that’s really all your supposed to do), so you might as well relax. the tech tells you through an intercom how long the next scan will be (mine range between 30 seconds and a few minutes – i’m usually in there for about half an hour all together), but if you fall asleep then none of that matters much.

5. get rid of all of your metal stuff

MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, so on your intake form they’ll ask you if you have any metal in your body, like piercings. so take that stuff out before you go. leave your rings and necklaces and earrings at home. if you have a piercing that you can’t take out, ask them about it when you make your appointment.

6. don’t watch this video until after you have your first MRI. seriously.

you’re welcome.


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