The Unbearable Loudness of MRI

Web MD defines Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI as “a test that uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to make pictures of organs and structures inside the body.” Sounds innocuous enough. But you could also describe it as being shoved in a tube, told not to move, and then being bombarded with ear-splitting sound for 45 minutes. Or maybe things have changed since I had it done.

I’d asked for it. I’d suffered intermittent but increasing neck and upper back pain for a couple of years, and I finally went to an orthopedist to find out what it was. He prescribed an MRI.

MRIs were relatively new at the time (2001), and I didn’t know anything about what one involved. Had I known I may have declined. Or I may have tried to prepare myself. Perhaps lying under my bed with a person on either side slamming cymbals together would’ve helped. Or maybe stuffing myself into a large cooler next to my car and having my husband honk the horn for an hour or so would have done the trick. But I didn’t do any of these things because I had no idea what I was in for.

That’s the thing (oh, I should say, one of the things) about western medicine that I find annoying. They don’t tell you in advance what this treatment or that will be like, when they perfectly well could. What’s up with that? They don’t want to scare you?

Well, actually I stand corrected. I should say, they don’t often tell you. One time, when I was having an ovarian cyst removed, the doctor did tell me, but I think it was because she had to. I had to sign a paper saying that even though I knew all the perfectly horrid things that could happen (punctured ovaries, coma or death from anesthesia, unstoppable internal hemorrhaging, and on and on), it was my choice to have the procedure. Right.

Anyway, off I happily went to get my MRI, focused solely on the brass ring of diagnosis. Upon entering the inner sanctum of MRI-dom, I saw it. The moment I laid eyes on the glistening white tube was when I first discovered claustrophobia. Sensations of panic (lungs collapsing, clammy skin, ringing ears) hit me as I imagined myself in the tube. I breathed.

As I took off my jewelry, I breathed. As I removed my clothing and changed into a piece of bed sheet fashioned into a body covering (calling it a gown is the greatest euphemism ever invented), I breathed. As I sat down on the tube edge and tried to listen to what the technician was saying over the quasi-deafening ring in my ears, I breathed. I caught a few of the words pouring from her mouth: something about keeping still, and something else about sounds, and something more about an intercom. That was it.

I lay on my back, fidgeting with my hair and the bed sheet thing, trying to decide where to rest my hands, as the human-sized tray slowly entered the tube. It was like a box of matches, but only big enough for one match. It was well-lit inside and, thankfully, well-ventilated. I assumed they’d learned to flood the thing with fresh, cool air to avoid patients passing out, or worse. I was still struggling to calm my ragged breath, fearing that my gulps would create movement and interfere with the test.

From inside, the technician’s voice resounded. Aha, the intercom. She’d said something about if I needed to reach her…seemed like I was supposed to press something or speak in some direction. I couldn’t remember. All I knew was this felt like a coffin. Some high-tech sarcophagus like you’d see in a Kubrick film. Was that the idea? To give you the fear of death? To scare the pain right out of you? Or to scare you to the degree that your pain seemed insignificant and you’d stop complaining?

All these thoughts were swirling in my head when it happened. A sound so loud my entire body jumped, banging the top of the tube. And then the din stopped. Thankfully, mercifully. The technician repeated her instruction not to move, as if I’d done it on purpose. Didn’t she know that directing sudden loud noises straight into someone’s ear, especially if they’re already terrified, is going to make them jump? Hadn’t she ever gone to a horror movie? What was she, a robot?

I then vaguely recalled her saying something about noises. Something like, “There will be noises intermittently throughout the test.” Noises? Really? Din, clatter, blaring horns, explosions were all more accurate descriptions of what I’d heard. Why couldn’t she simply have said, “you know when you had your mammogram and they said they were going to smash your breast between two metal plates, and you were told to say ‘when’ when the pain was unbearable and then they smashed it a bit more? Well, we’re gonna do the same thing except with loud sounds, only we’re not going to ask you about your decibel tolerance. We’re just gonna wing it.” That would’ve been more like it.

But there’s something else about western medicos. They have this way of making you feel like a baby – and guilty for it too. Like, “this is a big deal for you?” followed by a just perceptible roll of the eyes. And I want to shout, “okay then, tough guy, why don’t you lie down here and I’ll try it on you?”

But I didn’t shout. Instead, I felt guilty about having jumped and told myself I was acting like a baby, while girding myself for the next round. As I lay there, mind racing, breath coming Darth-Vader-like in my ears, I searched for what I could do to withstand this ordeal. I’d asked for it. I was in charge here. I had to get a grip. But how?

Then it started again. A sound so ear-splitting I thought my cranium would crack. I felt my body contract and I tensed to control it. No word from the technician, so I figured it’d worked. But as the loudness assaulted me, I thought I just might go mad and began picturing myself inching down the tray, leaping from the damn thing, and running….

And then, out of nowhere, a thought came into my mind. “That sounds like something I’ve heard before.” Suddenly I was standing at a harbor, watching big ships being loaded with freight, and the sound I was hearing was the sound of the containers being dropped onto the ship’s metal deck from five to ten feet up. I watched the crane arc slowly across a blue sky, lifting the next container high into the air.

Then the sound abruptly changed. My mind blurred, but in a second or two, I recognized the sound as a fog horn, bleating loud in warning through the dark night. I felt the rock of the ocean, as I sat on a buoy nearby. When the sound changed next, I’d caught the game, and in a flash, found that sound’s analogue in a normal world. In this way, each sound became familiar and then, amazingly, comforting. I felt my body relax and my breath deepen and smooth.

The technician’s voice startled me out of my reverie, and I thought I’d moved again. She was asking how I was. Still in the tube, all quiet save her disembodied voice, I struggled to understand why she was interrupting the test to ask my condition. I replied blankly “just fine.” “We’re done,” she announced, as a soft hum initiated the tray’s glide, expelling me from the tube. It was over and I’d have sworn it had just begun.

Post Script: I was reminded of this event by a video I came across the other day of Dr. John Beaulieu, who said “It is possible to transcend noise, to open your ears and hear it as music. Everything is music.” And BTW: The MRI showed a bulging disc in my neck. The docs said I’d need surgery within a year. After some considerable investigation and deliberation, I decided to start yoga. My neck was completely better in roughly eight months. That was six years ago.


About Rebecca Reynolds

Leadership Guru; Systems Thinker; Complex Problem Solver; Facilitative Leader...also LOVE life, dog Wiley, good food, Malbec, forests, oceans, yoga stillness, the boxing bag, ballroom dance, and movies.
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2 Responses to The Unbearable Loudness of MRI

  1. Richard Crawford says:

    Did they give you earplugs? Often they are reluctant to do that, but you should insist.

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