New MRI Scanners More Roomy and Less Stressful

You may not even realize you’re claustrophobic—until you have to get in a closed MRI. Fortunately, advances in technology mean you can now get into a more open MRI, so leave your fears at home.

Wondering how it works?

Physicians use an MRI, which stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging, as a diagnostic tool to view parts of the body that cannot be imaged by X-ray or other types of diagnostic imaging. The technology involves magnets, not X-rays, so the imaging does not subject the patient to radiation. An MRI is considered extremely safe.

An MRI scanner uses a superconducting magnet and radio-frequency waves to create an electromagnetic field that is sent into the patient’s body. Because the body is mostly water, every part of the body can be seen by the MRI. An MRI is especially useful for imaging soft tissues, which cannot be seen by X-Ray.

Looking at the images, certified radiologists can detect changes in bodily fluid to diagnose problems such as a herniated disc, torn tendon or other soft tissue problems, says Dr. Jeffrey Carlson of the Orthopaedic and Spine Center in Newport News.

Older MRI machines have a small hole for the patient to slide through—all the way inside. The patient’s shoulders might touch the sides, Dr. Carlson says. Once inside, even patients who didn’t think they were claustrophobic could become anxious.

“They have panic attacks,” says Debbie Bergman, a registered MRI technologist at Hampton Roads Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in Newport News. “They have anxiety attacks. They wouldn’t have the testing they needed. They’ve had a bad experience somewhere else and they’re nervous and scared. Some people actually can’t do it.”

In the open MRI at the Orthopaedic and Spine Center, neither your shoulders nor your face touch anything, Carlson says. As you lie inside the machine, you can make eye contact with a companion. “You can see around yourself,” Carlson says.

At Hampton Roads Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, the multi-positional machine means patients can lie down or sit up during their MRI, Bergman says. Completing the scan will take from 45 to 75 minutes, she says.

“Nothing comes over your face,” she says. “Patients can sit and watch TV. It’s not as loud as the traditional MRIs. People like it much better. Our MRIs also accommodate people such as those with compression fractures, who are in a lot of pain and not able to lie down.”

Patients appreciate that they can get an MRI seven days a week, lessening the need to take time off work, Bergman says.

Having a little extra room helps patients remain still during the scan, which is essential for good results, Carlson says. “Patient movement during scanning can distort the image and make it unreadable. This results in a longer scan for the patient when we must recapture images for accuracy and clarity.”

Magnets in the MRI at the Orthopaedic and Spine Center are stronger than in some machines and therefore provider a clearer image, Carlson says.

“The stronger the magnet, the more clarity there is in the image,” he says. “We can see subtle things related to herniated discs and pinched nerves. We’ll get more clarity for a tear in the cartilage in the knee.”

Getting a clear image the first time lessens the likelihood for follow-up images, Carlson says. An MRI at the doctor’s office may be much less costly than one in a hospital, Carlson says.

A stronger magnet also means if you sneeze or accidentally move, it won’t make as much difference. “With a stronger magnet, motion doesn’t mess up the image as much,” Carlson says.

“We have a high quality, powerful magnet to produce good images, but it’s also more comfortable for the patient,” he says. “It’s a win-win.”

Patients, even those with claustrophobia, find they can tolerate the open machines, Bergman says.

“They love our machine,” she says. “They were so traumatized. They realize how easy it is here. Now they’re happy with themselves, happy they got their exam done.”

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