In this article, you can find everything you need to know before your MRI scan, from what to expect, how to prepare, what happens during the scan, and what you should do afterwards.

What should I do before my scan?

Luckily, there isn’t really much to prepare for before you get scanned. Thanks to the non-invasive and magnetic nature of MRI machines, there aren’t any food or drink limitations before or after the scan. The only real advice here is that you use the bathroom before getting scanned. The reason for this is that patients are required to stay very still inside the machine for a long period of time and if you feel the urge to use the bathroom, you’ll have to restart the entire process.

Before your scan, the radiologist or doctor will explain to you what you need to do inside. Each patient is required to complete different tests, and they can vary from hand motor tasks to language comprehension tests. Fortunately, these tasks aren’t difficult and only take a couple of minutes each. Make sure you understand what you need to do before going inside the machine. 


How will I know if it’s safe for me?

MRIs are non-invasive and do not exhibit threatening levels of radiation, so there are no health concerns. 

However, you may not be able to get scanned if you have any sort of metal on or inside your body. Since MRIs are magnetic, you should remove all jewelry including rings, chains, or necklaces before entering the machine.  

Not all medical centers require you to switch into a gown, but if your clothing has any sort of metal that could interfere with the scan or if you have personal belongings that need to be stored, it may be in your best interest to switch into a gown for safety.


In what scenario should I refrain from getting an MRI?

You can not undergo an MRI scan if you have any medical implants such as pacemakers, artificial valves, or any other devices or replacements. This also includes metal from bone injuries, gunshot wounds that haven’t been cleaned or are unable to be cleaned, or tattoos. If you are unsure if you apply to any of these conditions, please ask your doctor beforehand. 

Women who are pregnant and people with metal allergies or even diabetes are advised against getting scanned. Check with your doctor what you should do.

Whoever is performing your scan will ask you a series of questions to confirm that you are eligible to get scanned. It is possible to get a scan modified for your condition if you have one that conflicts with how traditional MRIs operate, so always ask your doctor if that is an option. 


What happens during the scan?

Each scan can vary from patient to patient. On average, an MRI scan will last around 30 minutes to an hour. However, if you either move around too much or aren’t paying attention, you will have to redo the specific task you were doing at the time. This can delay scan, and, depending on how long it gets delayed, the rest of the tasks will feel more and more difficult as you get tired of staying still. To avoid this, find a comfortable position before you start and stay in it.

When you’re inside, there will be a headset on your face so that you can communicate with the person running the tests on you. They’ll be instructing you on what to do, so if you forget what your next test is or have a question, you can just ask them. Some MRIs have a panic button that you can press should you feel unsafe inside the machine.

Throughout the process, you will hear loud noises. There is no way around that. For some people, these noises scare them and they can’t stay still. If your doctor doesn’t provide ear plugs, ask for a pair so that you can mitigate those sounds. As you go through the tests, though, you’ll get used to the random noises.

In certain situations, patients are required to take a contrast agent which will help the radiologists in analyzing your brain scans. In this scenario, you will be injected with the contrast, which shouldn’t be harmful. 

What should I do after my scan?

Once you’ve completed the scan, there is nothing in particular you need to do. If you are sedated due to claustrophobia, you will need someone to drive you home. As always, look out for any health problems that are unordinary and report them to the technologist or radiologist. The majority of patients don’t experience any medical problems afterward but it’s important you are aware of that possibility.

Always talk to your doctor if you have any questions, and do not rely on online sources if you have serious concerns.

My experience getting an MRI

Recently, I volunteered to get an MRI scan for research purposes. The doctor who performed the scan on me was a post-doctorate research fellow who was learning the fundamentals of computational neuroscience. If you would like to learn more about MRIs and neuroimaging, read the article below.

She sat me down before the scan and broke down the details. I was to perform four separate tasks: a hand motor task, a sentence completion task, a verb generation task, and a word generation task. The process was to take around 45 minutes, and I was instructed to remain as still as possible.

Before I was rolled in, I was given a headset to fixate over my face so that I could maintain communication with the doctor. The headset also contained a mirror that reflected the screen behind the machine, so I could watch the instructions for the tasks right before my eyes. Once I was inside the scanner, I immediately began to hear the loud screeches and clanking noises that I was warned about prior. These sounds fired up promptly before each task was begun and they were disturbing, to say the least, since the earplugs played little to no role in reducing the volume. I quickly understood why many patients can spend several hours completing just a few tasks – the noises were distracting and could cause difficulty in concentrating and staying still. My plan was to focus on the tasks so that I would forget about the noises, and it worked for the most part.

Image by b0red from Pixabay

The first task I was presented with was the hand motor. In each task, there is a period of rest, or a ‘control’ state and a period of activity, when the actual task had to be completed. During the rest state, the screen went completely dark. When the active state began, a graphic popped up, displaying a clenching fist. Following the directions, I repeatedly clenched my fists until the rest state showed up again. This pattern alternated for several minutes. The second test was the sentence completion task. In this task, a sentence would appear on the screen during the active phase and I was to fill in the blank to make the sentence accurate. For example, a sample sentence could be ‘On Halloween, I carved _____’ and the patient would think (as opposed to saying the answer out loud) ‘pumpkins’. The third test, verb generation, tasked me with thinking of a verb that best fit a noun. The resting state would display jumbled letters so that I had to discern between the rest and active state and respond accordingly. The fourth and final task was word generation. In this task, the active phase screen displayed a random word and I was to respond by thinking of the first word that popped into my mind. The rest phase in this task also contained randomized letters to maximize brain activity.

Forty minutes later, I completed the scan. Despite the actual tasks adding up to around 15 minutes, there were long delays and pauses in between, during which the machine would prepare for the next task. Sometimes, patients move too much and disrupt the scans, in which case they are to redo the test. Instances like these elongate the scan time, which is why there is no official time frame for an MRI scan.

Hopefully, my experience can give you insight on what to expect, especially if your scans are specialized for the brain. For more information on MRIs and how they work, read my article on neuroimaging here.

If you still have questions, visit the following links for additional information:

https://radiology.ucsf.edu/patient-care/prepare/mri

https://www.self.com/story/what-to-expect-mri

https://4rai.com/blog/no-need-to-be-nervous-here-s-what-to-expect-during-an-mri-scan

Published 2:30 PM EST

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