Alleviating Anxiety about MRI

Anyone can develop anxiety before undergoing a medical test, even if the test is noninvasive like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI procedures may provoke feelings of claustrophobia as well as worry about the effects the system's powerful magnet may have on you. Knowing what to expect can help you feel better prepared, more relaxed and in control of the situation.

MRI is a widely used diagnostic test that provides detailed images of soft tissues in the body—from brain tissue to cartilage in large joints. Each year, an estimated 30 million MRIs are performed in the United States, according to the Radiological Society of North America. The test is extremely safe when safety protocols are followed.

Steps to stay calm

First, some good news: You won't be exposed to the potentially harmful radiation of some other diagnostic procedures like a computed tomography (CT) scan or x-rays. MRIs use magnets and radio waves, which not only make the test safe but allow for three-dimensional re-creations of anatomic structures with detail superior to that produced by x-rays and CT scans.

What's more, you don't need to be repositioned to obtain different views. However, you will be enveloped in the machine in a position that won't let you see its opening, and your face will usually be no more than three to 10 inches away from the equipment. The procedure can take 15 to 45 minutes, and sometimes longer. During that time, there will be periods when you'll need to lie perfectly still, sometimes holding your breath for a few seconds.

You'll hear loud tapping, knocking and chirping sounds from the scanner's powerful shifting magnets. Such an environment is highly confining and may cause claustrophobic feelings and sensory deprivation. To produce a calm atmosphere, some facilities have special lighting and music. Mirrors may be used so you can see the room. During the test, clinical staff will always be nearby and able to speak with you through an intercom.

If you're still feeling nervous about an MRI, here are some strategies to help you relax:

  • Let your doctor know beforehand about your fears so he or she can address them. You may be given a mild sedative to relax you during the test.
  • Ask about seeing the system beforehand—familiarity may be the key to overcoming your anxiety. Many facilities honor such requests.
  • Find out whether the facility permits a loved one or friend to stay with you during the procedure.
  • If you haven't been given earplugs to lessen noise, ask for them.

You can also ask your doctor to order an open MRI, a much less confining alternative. Such systems are unobstructed on three sides, and your head is often positioned outside the system. The technology is ideal for patients who are highly anxious, elderly people who need help positioning themselves and those who are too heavy to fit into a traditional closed system.

Safety first

All patients are screened for implantable devices and magnetizable foreign objects because of the risk that these items will shift or malfunction as a result of the MRI. People with implantable devices, such as pacemakers, certain types of stents or inner ear implants, are generally not candidates for MRI procedures. Magnetizable foreign objects in your body, such as shrapnel, may also preclude undergoing an MRI.

Drugs known as contrast agents are frequently given intravenously to make it easier to distinguish abnormalities from healthy tissue. The most frequent side effects—nausea, headache or hives—are typically mild and last for only about 10 to 15 minutes. Less than 3 percent of patients experience such problems.


Before undergoing an MRI, you must remove anything that may contain metal from your body. Some of these items include:

  • Hearing aids
  • Removable dental work
  • Eyeglasses
  • Jewelry and watches
  • Hairpins
  • Body piercings
  • Medication patches
  • Makeup that may contain metallic particles or small amounts of metal

If you have any permanent tattoos, including cosmetic tattoos such as eyeliner, let your doctor know. Because of the iron oxide pigment in some inks, you may be at risk of burns during the MRI.

Source: Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 19 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 19 Mar 2015