Article was originally written by TJ Ryan on August 17, 2016.
Last week I went to my GP to check on my headaches and migraines. Having already eliminated a myriad of options including stress, spinal misalignment, hormonal imbalance, and even blood pressure issues, we turned to the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan. I wanted the peace of mind to know that my brain wasn’t secretly providing safe harbour to a raft of tumours.
What I found was that the MRI wasn’t scary, it didn’t take long, and it was free – so it definitely didn’t cost as much as I thought it would.
Is getting an MRI scary?
I didn’t find getting an MRI to be scary. There’s no radiation involved, unlike with X-rays and CT scans, which is nice to know.
I had to fast for two hours before the scan to get a clearer image. Some scans of your torso need you to fast for four to six hours, and staff will let you know when you book an appointment.
They do warn you that there are a bunch of risk factors where you might get a headache or feel nauseous after having a scan. I had a migraine at the time and was already having pain and nausea, so I expected the worst, but in fact it didn’t increase during or after the scan.
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If you have trouble with claustrophobia, you can talk with either your GP or the Radiographer about being given a sedative on the day. If you do freak out during the test, all you have to do is squeeze the panic button they give you, and they’ll stop the scan and let you out. You can usually continue the test after a breather. If you give up entirely on the scan then you won’t get any results.
They have a lot of measures set up to prevent you freaking out, which I found reassuring. For example, the Radiographer watches you throughout the test from a window in the other room, and you can talk to them through a microphone in the MRI. There’s even a mirror effect so that when you’re lying down in the MRI, you can see the Radiographer sitting behind their window.
Do you have to remove all metal for an MRI?
You have to take off any metal that’s near any body parts that will go into the machine. The magnets in the MRI are seriously powerful. If you have any metal implants like a pacemaker, metal plates and pins, an insulin pump, cochlear implants, or an IUD, you may not be allowed to get an MRI scan at all.
For me, because the scan was of my head, all I had to take off was my necklace, my earrings and glasses. I had to put all my electronic devices in the locker – watch, phone, car keys and even my credit card – because the MRI magnet erases their programming and data. I was allowed to keep my wedding rings because they are made of gold, which is not a heat-conductive metal.
No stress about tooth fillings – they don’t seem to be affected by the magnet.
If you’re having a full-body scan, you may need to take off your clothes and replace them with a blank-slate hospital gown. This is because most clothing contains metal zips, buttons, buckles, or studs.
What does an MRI machine look like and what is the process?
You lie down on a long table that goes inside the machine. The machine looks like a big, round, tube-shaped portal – so if you’re a sci-fi fan like me, it’s actually kind of exciting because it looks just like you’re about to travel through time and space.
(Spoilers: You don’t actually travel through time and space. But the sound of the machine is kind of hypnotic, so if you doze off, you can definitely pretend you visited an alternate universe.)
You are given earplugs and shown how to put them in if you haven’t used them before. The machine is extremely loud, so this precaution isn’t just for fun.
They put pillows on either side of the body part being scanned to make sure it can’t move around accidentally during the scan. If your head is being scanned, these pillows also give extra noise protection for your ears.
If you needed to have contrast fluid (gadolinium) injected through an IV, this gets injected through the veins in your arm or hand. My head scan did not require contrast fluid, but I’m told that it can feel a little cold as the fluid travels through your bloodstream.
Finally, for the brain scan specifically, a little plastic cage goes over your head. This cage focusses the magnetic field to look just at your head.
What is it like inside the MRI machine?
From the patient’s point of view, the MRI scan is just a series of noises. Thumping, whistling, beeping and more. The noises change in a pattern every two to four minutes, so you don’t have time to go insane listening to any one pattern for too long.
Apart from that, you don’t feel anything in your body, and there’s no flashing lights like taking photographs. You might get bored but if you’re anything like me, you have hours’ worth of TV episodes to rewatch in your head, from Friends to MASH to Angry Beaver. (Try to avoid thinking of House, M.D.) Or you could try to think of songs to silently sing along in your head to line up with the rhythm of the thumping noises.
I was fascinated to learn how the MRI actually makes an image. It uses varying frequencies of electromagnetic radio waves to create an image. All of the noise is made by the machine switching back and forth between frequencies. These radio waves “excite” the hydrogen (water) in the body part being scanned. The movement of the hydrogen atoms is measured by a coil that acts like a radio antennae to pick up your “signal”.
How long does an MRI take?
The average time for an MRI of one body part is 20-30 minutes, or up to one hour if you’re scanning multiple parts or your entire body.
The MRI for my brain was a 20-minute scan. I spent the time trying to count the number of “sets” of different noises I heard, and I counted six but wasn’t sure I got them all. When the door was opened again and the table pulled out of the machine, I was surprised it was all over.
How much does an MRI cost?
An MRI can cost between $0 and $500 depending on whether the condition is subsidised. For fully subsidised conditions, Medicare will cover 100% of the cost if you are a public patient. If you are a private patient Medicare will cover 85% with private health insurance covering the gap in some cases.
It was free for me. The government pays the full cost for public and private patients to get an MRI for many different conditions. Luckily for me, since 2013, one of the newly-included conditions has been unexplained headaches.
My MRI was one of these subsidised ones, so I didn’t have to pay anything out of pocket. But even as a private patient, I would have been able to afford the cost because I have private health insurance cover.
You should always ask your doctor or MRI clinic how much the MRI scan will cost before you attend your appointment. Then phone your health insurance provider and see how much of it they will pay of the Medicare gap.