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For MRI Claustrophobics

by Tony Medley

MRI’s are terrific. They give a detailed view of the insides of your body through magnetic energy, no radiation. They have also been horribly claustrophobic. The original MRI machines were like tombs. You were inserted head-first in a small, closed end tube and forced to stay there for extended periods of time. Lots of people couldn’t do it.

Then they offered “Open MRI” machines. In Los Angeles, for a long time, the only one available was in Simi Valley, a 40 minute drive from Los Angeles. Slowly, more people offered open MRIs. The problem with an Open MRI is that it’s much slower and the images are of inferior quality.

Despite the drawbacks, when I needed an MRI, I looked for an open MRI. But the open MRI was also kind of claustrophobic because, even though it was open on its sides, the sandwich into which you were inserted didn’t have a lot of space, so the top was only an inch or two from the end of your nose. And you had to stay in it for much longer than a closed MRI.

Recently, I had to have an MRI and I wasn’t thrilled. I went to a local place and signed up for an open MRI. When I was called in, however, I was told that it would last for 90 minutes and I couldn’t speak or move for the entire time. They said they could give me some sedation (a 5 mg valium), but that I would need a driver. I said I’d come back with a driver.

This morning I returned, apprehensive. When I was called in, I couldn’t fit into the open MRI (which was still going to take 90 minutes) because I can’t lay my head flat and there was so little space in the sandwich that I couldn’t be inserted.

I asked to see the closed MRI, which was a new machine. I was thrilled when I saw it. It’s open on both ends and it’s not nearly as long as the old ones. I asked to be inserted. No problem. I agreed to go through it.

The result was fantastic. It was over in less than a half hour. The length of the machine is so short that I was only inserted up to my chest. There was a lot more room over my face than in the open MRI. I had absolutely no problem. The technician told me each time she was going to turn it on and none of the segments was longer than five minutes. It was over almost before I knew it.

In short, the new “closed” MRI isn’t closed at all. It has openings in each end. It’s much shorter than the older “closed” MRIs. It’s much faster than the open MRI. The images are much sharper than the open MRI. Finally, and probably most important, the new “closed” MRI machine is actually less claustrophobic than the open MRI because there's actually a lot more head room.

Those who have avoided MRIs because of claustrophobic feelings should try the new “closed” MRIs. They are nothing to fear.

The technician was fantastic. Every time she did a segment, she told me when it started, how long it would last, and when it ended. She was upbeat and cheerful. Even though I couldn’t speak or respond, I was serene and never felt one second of claustrophobia. My friend was allowed in the room with me and she kept her hand on my leg the entire time so I knew she was there. I didn’t have to change clothes.

There should no longer be fear that a "closed" MRI will be nearly as claustrophobic as in the past.

May 28, 2010