woman lying in an MRI scanner

7 Tips for Staying Calm and Comfortable During an MRI for MS

By Lisa M. Basile
Reviewed by Dana Cooper, M.D.
March 25, 2024

Your doctor may have told you that they need to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to help diagnose multiple sclerosis (MS). Or maybe you’re getting the procedure regularly to help monitor your disease and response to treatment. If you’re like many people, you probably have some questions or even apprehensions about getting an MRI.

It’s true that MRIs can be uncomfortable for some people, since you’ll be required to lie still for an extended period of time in a small space, says Achillefs Ntranos, M.D., a board-certified neurologist and MS specialist in Beverly Hills, California. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make the experience more tolerable.

To help you get more comfortable with an upcoming MRI, we’ve gathered insights from experts and people with MS who’ve been there.

What Is an MRI?

When it comes to diagnosing and managing multiple sclerosis, MRI is the most important tool. In fact, more than 90% of people with MS receive a diagnosis based on MRI findings, which support clinical findings from a detailed history and physical exam.

“An MRI is a noninvasive medical test that uses powerful magnets and radio waves to create detailed images of the inside of the body,” Ntranos explains. “These images can help doctors diagnose and monitor MS [which affects the brain and spinal cord]. Unlike a CT scan, an MRI does not use radiation, making it a safe and effective way to get detailed images of the body.”

The imaging is done using an MRI machine, a large, tube-shaped machine that you lie inside. There are both open and closed MRI machines. The closed MRI has one opening where you enter the machine. The open MRI is open on four sides and is preferable for many people who tend to get nervous in enclosed spaces. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society does note that open MRIs—while preferable in cases of claustrophobia—do not provide the best images for detecting MS activity.

“Because of the lower resolution [of the open MRI], this might not be the best way to assess MS activity, especially in the spinal cord,” Ntranos says. There are also wide-bore MRI machines, which have slightly larger openings.

What to Expect on MRI Day

Here’s what you can expect when you get an MRI for MS.

Before You Enter the Machine

Because the MRI machine uses magnets, metals can be dangerous during a scan. When you first arrive for an MRI appointment, you’ll want to remove all metal objects like piercings, jewelry, and hair clips from your body. “Staff will go through a safety questionnaire, but be sure not to forget to remove all metal before entering the scan room,” says Daniel Matterson, a former MRI radiographer and person living with MS in Middlesbrough, England. People with implantable devices, like a pacemaker, may not be able to get an MRI.

Next, you’ll lie down on a sliding bed that moves into the machine, and the technician will place an important part of the scanner around your head. “A coil, which is a structure made of rods and bars, will be placed over your head to enhance the magnetic fields used in the MRI,” Ntranos says. Think of this coil as an antenna between you and the machine.

Some MRIs require a contrast dye that’s injected into your veins to help doctors evaluate details in the images. If your healthcare provider needs to inject contrast, they will put an IV (intravenous) catheter into your arm before the MRI.

When You’re in the Machine

When you’re ready, you’ll enter the MRI machine on the sliding bed. You won’t be restrained inside the scanner, but once you’re in it, you shouldn’t move. It’s also important to know that the MRI can be very loud, which is perfectly normal. The noises may also change throughout the study.

“The test usually lasts for 20 to 45 minutes,” Ntranos explains. Some tests can last up to 90 minutes. “It is important you lie very still for the duration of your scan to ensure the images are diagnostic,” Daniel adds.

You will still be able to communicate with your MRI technician throughout the procedure. “It’s important to remember that imaging staff are always on hand. You will also receive an emergency buzzer, which you can press at any time,” Daniel says. Pressing the call button can alert the technician that you’d like to come out of the MRI machine.

Before you get into the machine, discuss the use of the emergency buzzer with your technician. That includes what you can expect to happen when you press it, like whether you’ll need to start over.

Tips to Improve Your MRI Experience

There are a few ways to make sure both your mind and body are prepared for an MRI. From asking questions beforehand to wearing comfortable clothing, here’s what you should know.

Embrace Distractions

See whether your imaging center offers special MRI-safe headphones or earplugs to dull the noise. “Many centers offer music, which works as a distraction technique. If you’re lucky, your center will offer you a choice of music,” Daniel says.

Certain imaging centers also employ the use of a mirror, which can help with claustrophobia. “These are strategically placed within the scanner to help you see outside [the machine]. This may relieve the sense of being suspended in a narrow tunnel,” Daniel explains.

Try Meditation and Visualization

Vickie Hadge, 56, of Tolland, Connecticut, is an MS advocate living with the disease since 2006. For her, MRIs have become a yearly event. She says that meditation is her go-to comfort technique.

“In an MRI, I meditate and practice square breathing. I also use visualization, and I go to places in my mind that aren’t enclosed,” she says.

Prep Your Body

Being in an MRI for MS and lying still for a long time can sometimes cause pain, Vickie says: “When I have to lie in one position for a long time, I can get restless legs or spasms. So, if I’m having a high-symptom day, I take a muscle relaxer and also make sure that I’m stretched or loosened up.”

Before heading to your MRI appointment, ask your doctor if a muscle relaxant is safe for you. Stretches may also be helpful.

Talk to Your Doctor About Medication

Some people take an anti-anxiety drug, as prescribed by their doctor, before the scan, Ntranos says. “If you are very anxious or claustrophobic, your doctor may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication, such as Valium, to help you relax during the test,” he notes. Vickie says Valium helps her manage feelings of claustrophobia or nervousness.

If you’re worried about staying calm and still during the MRI and would like to discuss medication that may help, talk to your doctor.

Ask Questions

According to Ashley M. Ratcliff, who lives with MS in Long Beach, California, keeping comfortable is all about getting the answers to any last questions you may have. “I suggest you have a brief conversation with the technician before the procedure to manage expectations and to ask any questions,” she says. For example, these questions might include:

  • How long will it take?
  • Can I listen to music?
  • Can you periodically give me updates on how much time is left?
  • Is there an intercom system?
  • What do I do if I get nervous?

Dress for Success

Ashley also suggests dressing comfortably for the experience. “The MRI machine is hard and rigid, so I like to wear softer fabrics. I wear thick socks, sweatpants, and a sweater, as I tend to run cold, and the facility is too frigid for my liking.” You can also ask for a blanket or even bring your own, she adds.

Get Help from Your Technician

Make sure you’re entirely comfy before the technician begins. “I have long locs, and sometimes lying on them can feel awkward, so I ask the technician to move my hair out of the way, knowing that I can’t rotate once inside the machine,” Ashley says. So, if you need to do something before settling in, ask your technician to help you.

Getting an MRI might not always be the most comfortable, but getting through it is an important part of making sure your care is the best it can be. Give these tips a try for an easier experience.

You May Also Like: