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  • Susannah Money-Schenk

MRI Scan - What to expect.

MRI scans can be a very daunting prospect for most of us.

Firstly we are sent for one when there is a problem. They are used to help us recognise the cause of the problems we are experiencing. The prospect of their being something wrong is a scary one, but the experience of being in an MRI machine is also a scary one. In this article I hope to clarify what an MRI is and what happens during a scan.

I have been sent for two MRIs in my life; one on my shoulder and one this week on my brain and spinal cord. The first one lasted 20 minutes but yesterday I had the pleasure of 45 minutes in that great white tube. I say pleasure as I find find them strangely relaxing. Maybe its 45 minutes of enforced rest (albeit in a not very peaceful setting!) but there is something about an MRI that I find strangely therapeutic. But be fore we launch into what happens lets look at how they work.

An MRI uses really strong magnets - so strong they could pick up an average car! These magnets have an interesting effect on the human body. Most of our body is made up of water - around 70% of it. These water molecules generally float about happily going about there business. water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one single oxygen (hence H2O). It is the hydrogen protons which are important. Each proton spins on an axis - a bit like the earth - with a north and south pole. They are technically tiny magnets - and there are LOTS of them. When exposed to a magnetic field these molecules line up an spin at a particular frequency. A second magnetic field can pull them to face in a different direction and once the magnets are switched off the water molecules begin to realign. As they realign the frequency changes which allows the MRI to see inside your body.

The scanner can take pictures of the changes of frequency in your body. Since they behave different in different tissues the scanners can get detailed pictures of bone, soft tissue and organs such as the brain. This may all sound a little odd - that molecule inside us are being yanked around by giant magnets but amazingly we feel absolutely nothing!

The most discomfort I experienced yesterday was from my boney elbows resting on the scanner!

So what to expect at your appointment.

1. You will be asked a long list of questions about any medical procedures that you may have had that could possibly have caused any metal to have been placed in your body. As you will be thrust into a giant magnet it is really important that you have no metal on or in you.

2. For the same reasons as point one, double check you have no jewellery on - take out your earrings, remove your rings, necklaces, anklets - everything!

3. Clothing can also contain metal. I chose what i wore carefully yesterday; completely plain leggings (no metal tags or buttons) a simple long sleeved base layer (again with no zips or buttons) and a simple sports bra. Surprisingly I was still asked to take my bra off and just wear the top. Some sports bras have been known to have metal woven through them or to have tiny brand studs which we don't notice. So off it came, and my top put back on. Don't panic if you cant find anything suitable to wear you will be given a gown instead!

4. You will taken into the scanner and popped on the table which slides in and out of the tube depending on what you are having scanned. I was fortunate to be having my brain scanned yesterday as was fitted with a head piece that had a mirror attached. This acted similar to a periscope meaning that when I looked up, instead of seeing the roof of the scanner I saw my feet! Having been concerned about feeling claustrophobic this made a massive difference as i got to watch the nurses in the window beyond my feet for the duration (when I wasn't having a nap that is!).

5. Pick your music! Yep you will be given the option of listening to music whilst in the scanner. I would recommend picking a band you know well. The machines are LOUD so having songs playing that you know will mean you can fill in the gaps. I went for Muse on my sisters recommendation which I have to say was the perfect choice to compete with the banging and clattering of the magnets contracting and recoiling.

6. You will also be offered ear plugs and an eye mask. If the mirror option is possible for you (having your shoulder scanned makes it difficult to accommodate the head piece for example, an eye mask maybe a good option to keep you relaxed.

7. You will also be given a 'panic' button in the form of a squeezey ball so the scan be stopped at anytime if you feel uncomfortable or anxious.

Once all these steps have been completed the radiographers leave the room and the scan starts! Prepare to launched into you very own arcade game! POW POW POW! BANG BANG BANG! It honestly sounds like you stuck in a game of space invaders! Despite being noisy they are strangely rhythmic - maybe thats what I find so relaxing! I definitely snoozed a lot, only woken by the table shifting backwards and forwards in the tube or by the very lovely radiographer keeping me updated on the progress of the scan through my ear phones.

To say I was a bit disappointed when it was over and I had to get up and go to work wouldn't be a lie!

So don't panic about having to have an MRI. It is daunting yes and I had my worries walking through those double doors at West Suffolk yesterday but try and embrace the process. It is to help you get one step closer to diagnosis and hopefully treatment for whatever ails you.

One last thing, if you are paying privately be prepared for it to take a hefty chunk of your bank balance - thank you Daddy xxxx


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