The MRI experience

Imagine a 50 foot tall wasp humming selections from Laurie Anderson’s album Big Science while operating a jackhammer as rhythm accompaniment. That’s kind of what an MRI sounds like.

Jonathan tried to prepare me for the experience, as did others. But it’s nearly impossible to fully impart what such a visceral experience is like.

After swearing that I had no shrapnel, rods or tattooed eyeliner (?), I was told to strip, put on my gown and wait. Shortly thereafter I was ushered into the MRI room. I need to buy stock in General Electric, because that company makes all these diagnostic machines. It was smaller than I’d expected, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

I’d been given the choice of either the radio or plain old earplugs. I figured chances were good that I’d get stuck listening to Cristina Aguilera and 30 second spots for Ovaltine on Hot 97 if I went with the radio option. So I chose the earplugs and my own thoughts. I was given a little ball to squeeze as an “alarm” if I needed them to stop. In a way, being handed this device made me even more nervous. What were these people about to do to me?

Zoom. Whirrrr. In I slid. The technicians hurredly left the room. One of them crackled into being over the intercom, “We’re just going to do a short one to start.” Pause, fiddle. “Here we go.”

A series of three low buzzes, less than a second each, sounded. I came to think of those as the “Okay, it’s show time, folks!” intro sequence, as they featured before each new round of buzzing and banging that accompanied the creation of each new image, which typically took about 3-4 minutes.

I really was not ready for what happened next. I can’t explain it, but when the loud noises and vibrations started, I suddenly felt awful. My heart rate shot up and I started to mildly hyperventilate. This lasted only for about 15 seconds or so, but it was bad. It passed, probably because I just tried to focus on the rhythm of this sequence’s particular banging and bring my breathing in line with it. I also did not want to screw it up and have to start all over again.

After about 10-15 minutes of sitting through repeated rounds of banging, buzzing and whirring, I got used to it and was able to relax a little. I thought a lot about how powerful sound is. I remembered once reading a chapter in the book Pranks (page 72-74), an interview with an artist named Monte Cazazza who did a lot of, um, interesting things with ultra-low and ultra-high frequency sound. In it, he describes an experiment he did on himself using ultra-low frequency sound. He basically made himself ill:

“You felt bad. If low frequency sounds get to a certain level, the molecules in your organs start rubbing together, and your cell walls could eventually break down and turn to mush. At lesser levels you’d lose control of your bowels…People don’t realize how much sound physiologically affects them — it can make people sick, and it does in their jobs. It’s dangerous to work in a really noisy environment. Of course, some frequencies bother you more than others.”

Another thing I remembered during the cacophony was a former girlfriend of Jonathan’s who claimed she’d once had a spontaneous, totally hands-free climax at a Led Zeppelin concert. Having inexplicably burst into tears myself at more than one classical concert, I was inclined to believe that story.

The power of sound to affect us physically and psychologically has not escaped the private sector. Nor has it gone unnoticed by the military. That second link is a particularly fascinating read and worth the time.

With all this on my mind, the time flew by. As I was slid back out I asked one of the technicians if people ever experience a lot of anxiety during the procedure. Actually, the term I wanted to use was get totally freaked out. She nodded. “Oh, yeah. We have people we can’t do this with.”

On my way out they gave me a CD with the images, since that’s what the doctor ordered. They will not mail one, so I have to mail or bring it in myself. I am tempted to open them up in Photoshop. But I don’t want to break the seal. I’m sure he’ll show them to me while I’m there anyway.

12 Responses

  1. I actually felt like I was in a transporter — and I just hoped when they put me back together that everything got put in the right place ;-)

  2. I’m glad you survived the MRI monster. Radio or ear plugs? Not very good audio options! The imaging facility where I’ve had several MRIs done lets you bring in your own mp3 player to plug into their special (non-metallic) headphones. One time I didn’t have my mp3 gizmo so they plugged me into Rhapsody on their PC and the technicians played DJ with selections from my playlist… it was actually distracting (in a good way) to wonder what they were going to pick next for me to listen to. You want pretty loud music… Sarah McLachlan won’t do it!

    I had a shoulder MRI where I was allowed to lie on my back, they put nice pre-warmed blankets on me and that was actually quite relaxing. But then there were a couple of MRIs where I was required to lie on my stomach with arms outstretched (Superman style)… this position is very claustrophobic and both times I barely managed to avoid a freak-out. I found out why they routinely offer Valium to most patients for that procedure.

    Hope you get some good results!

  3. I think you have to experience an MRI to understand just how strange it is and why it can be so awful even if you don’t have claustrophobia. I got one recently, which I went into totally unworried and thinking it was no big deal. As it turns out, I barely made it through the whole thing. For me it was kind of a long unpleasant mediation on the mind-body relationship wherein I seriously questioned my ability not to give into the overwhelming desire to freak out and shake all my limbs at once. And I kept thinking that my legs were twitching uncontrollably, but I wasn’t sure if that was actually happening or I was just imagining it. I still swear they were, but maybe that happened in between when they were capturing the images, because thankfully I didn’t have to do it over again.

    Your point about sound is interesting; I hadn’t actually thought about the sound as the primary issue with the MRI, more that it was being forced to hold absolutely still for so long and feeling like I couldn’t even breathe too deeply without messing up the images. But you’re probably right that the sounds, or the frequencies, are a major part of the unpleasantness. That article about the acoustics of war is really interesting. Sound cannons are also being used by police against protesters (see the G20 protests in Pittsburgh last year). And of course there’s music as a tool of torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Anyway, before this already long response devolves any further, I will end by saying that I hope the MRI sheds some light on your injury, and that by the time you figure out what it is, it’s mostly healed!

  4. So I had to get an MRI when I had a pelvic stress fracture a couple years ago… anyway, I’d never had one before (only a bone scan) so when they gave me the CD I was pretty interested in seeing what it looked like, and if I as a non-medical expert would be able to identify anything out of the ordinary. Well, I needed to use a PC instead of my Mac, so I booted it up on one of the lab computers with two of my friends/labmates (male) looking on… and was SUPER embarrassed to realize just how much more detail there is on an MRI than an x-ray. Like, oh no, I just showed my co-workers my hoo-ha level of detail… um, didn’t think that one through very well. Fortunately it became kind of funny after the mortification wore off, but just in case: if you must open the CD, do it in private!

  5. I had an MRI for my shoulder. It was creepy. Lawrence Hospital early on a Sunday morning. You’d get used to the pattern of the clanging and it would stop and then after a while a new, different one appeared. Creepy, but I survived too. I think after the initial freak-out I was OK.

    When my orthopedist for that running injury saw the report on the MRI, he said that it told him exactly what the problem was. I hope it words as well for you.

    Oh, and new meaning to “Stairway to Heaven.” (Or was she thinking of Jonathan when they played “Rock and Roll”?)

  6. No one ever offered me headphones. *sniff* Guess I ain’t cool.

  7. I always take the headphones. My first MRI was when I was about 14 and had smashed my head on the floor after passing out. I had an egg on the back of my head and they made a cushion to try to accomodate it, ouch.I’ve had several more since-all head or spine and I don’t mind them. I even volunteered for a brain study last year and got one, who doesn’t like a free look into the noggin’ to make sure nothing is growing or out of place?! I’m glad you survived. They actually have “Open MRI’s” in many places now because people are so freaked out by them.
    For your sake and sanity, I hope the doc says “ooh look,healed up stress fx” and not “hmmm labral tear”. Maybe you can share the photos after your visit. I’m a medical nerd!

    • unfortunately, I don’t think they can diagnose a labral tear without contrast agent … so more importantly I hope they don’t say “hmmm, I don’t see anything”. But I am SURE that they will find the culprit, all my fingers and toes are crossed.

  8. Oh, as for your sound comment- you’re soo right. When we went to see “Restrepo”(military documentary) Dave was transported back to his Army days by the sounds of the different guns. He’s been out for 10 yrs and yet could recognize each different shot.Amazing.

  9. Thanks for the tip. If I ever need one I’ll go for the headphones option. The results will be interesting — hope they forecast an early return to running.

  10. guess I got lucky. I only had to stick my leg in the machine so it didn’t bother me one bit.

    and knowing you are getting it free is eases things a bit.

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