MRIs and Claustrophobia and Sedatives, Oh My!

I guess it’s true what they say: You learn something new every day.

I’d had magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans done in the past for medical reasons, but it was in 2021 that I learned I should’ve expressed my fear of tight spaces to my doctor. I hadn’t realized it mattered or that anyone would care.

When my doctor suspected that I might have multiple sclerosis (MS), he asked if I was claustrophobic. He shared with me that he is, so he likes to ask his patients.

“Wow! Yes, very much so,” I replied. So he offered to prescribe me a sedative and explained that it would help keep me relaxed for the MRI scan. I was hesitant at first, but I agreed to give it a try. Why not? If it works, great! If not, at least I tried.

Lorazepam: My New Best Friend

It worked! Lorazepam is now a friend of mine that holds my hand and calms me down for the dreaded MRI. I made it through the brain scan and then was told I was going to need two more scans of my entire spine. Two more? Are these doctors crazy?

Well, me being me, the overachiever, I chose to schedule the cervical and thoracic (both spine) MRIs together on my birthday.

Who volunteers to spend 90 minutes in a noisy MRI machine first thing in the morning on their birthday? Me! That’s who. But I thought I’d just get it over with and go about my day. It was a tough 90 minutes, but I can confirm that I’m no longer hesitant about accepting a little help from a sedative.

Why All the MRIs?

MRI scans are a big part of both the MS diagnosis process and routine care, which I learned when I was officially diagnosed. I had naively thought that after the initial three scans, I’d be done with the nightmare machine.

Boy, was I wrong. MRI scans become a normal, every-year test for MS patients, but for someone with extreme claustrophobia, it’s added stress. It’s terrifying and nerve-racking.

Some people are okay with MRIs. Some people get used to the scans.

I’m not one of those people. I can accept that they are a regular occurrence, but it’s something I’ll never get used to.

Not Everyone Will Support Your Choice to Take a Sedative

Before my most recent scan to check for new lesions, the technician asked a few screening questions, including whether he should be aware of anything about me and MRIs, and whether there was any metal on my clothes. I told him I should be okay, because my doctor had prescribed a sedative for my claustrophobia.

He looked at me like I was crazy. He said, “You’re so tiny. You’ll have a lot of room in the machine. You don’t need that.”

Yes, I am quite tiny, but small spaces freak me out. We all fear something, and that’s my biggest fear … small spaces where I feel like everything is caving in on me and I might get stuck. I don’t want to panic and have to start over.

New Lesions: Another Reason MRIs Are Scary

Walking down the hallway to the scanning room, I gave myself a pep talk: “No new lesions. You can do this. Please, no new lesions.”

We got to the dimly lit room that houses the MRI machine, or as I like to call it, the tunnel to my nightmare. The technician gave me earplugs to help muffle the loud noises, but seriously, who are they kidding? I heard everything.

I lay down, covered up with blankets because the room is always cold, the technician handed me the emergency button in case I needed to get out of the machine — and off we went!

I felt myself moving into the tunnel. I was calm in the moment. I felt the lorazepam setting in. I let my mind start to wander. … “I wonder if there will be another reboot of Gilmore Girls.” … “I hope someday I get to go to a Lakers game. That would be a dream co—”

And Then There’s the Noise

BOOM! EEK! Tap, tap! BOOM! The noises broke into my distracting thoughts. My eyes opened, and I instantly felt my heart racing. I couldn’t catch my breath. “Are things closing in on me? I’m not going to make it out of here!”

A minute later I felt my eyes shutting again, and I was back in my calm place. Ugh, that was scary.

Moving out of the machine at last, I realized it wasn’t that bad — or maybe it was. I was medicated, after all. Plus, my thoughts can be a little dramatic sometimes. A few days later I got my results: no new lesions.

Small victories are so important with any chronic illness, so I’ll take this one.

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