The new MRI scanner that won't give you claustrophobia



01:09 GMT, 27 November 2012

Every day, hundreds of patients undergo magnetic resonance imaging scans (MRI scans) — and every day many of those patients will ask to get out of the machine before doctors have even had time to take the scan.

This is because, while MRI has advantages over X-ray and CT scans (it can reveal the inner workings of the body in much greater detail), having a scan involves lying in a small ‘torpedo tube’, measuring just 70cm across, for between 15 minutes to an hour-and-a-half.

The machinery produces a loud clicking and whirring as it works, and many find it a disorientating and panic-inducing experience.

Many patients find the MRI machine difficult and can't go through with it

Many patients find the MRI machine difficult and can't go through with it

Estimates suggest that as many as one in six patients suffers from claustrophobia in an MRI machine and can’t go through with it — one study found that 16.5 per cent of patients who’d had a coronary bypass operation experienced this while in the scanner.

To overcome this problem, scientists have developed a new type of ‘open’ scanner, where the patient sits or stands with the scanning equipment (which contains the large magnets) placed on either side of them. There is a gap at the front — not only does this remove the risk of claustrophobia, but it means patients can even watch a distracting DVD on a screen in front of them.

The manufacturers also say that in addition to benefiting those who dislike being enclosed, the new scanner can accommodate larger patients who are simply unable to fit into a conventional machine. An added bonus of upright scanning is that it may provide more insight into a patient’s health. This is because it allows the body to be scanned in weight-bearing positions showing, for example, the effects of gravity on knee and hip joints.

‘It also enables us to see problems in patients’ backs that would not be revealed if they were lying down having a conventional scan,’ explains Dr Ben Timmis, a consultant radiologist and joint director of the London Upright MRI Centre.

One of those who has benefited from the new machine is Elaine Flynn, 47, who lives in Wetherby, West Yorkshire.

She needed a scan to help diagnose the cause of her painful hip joints, but when she saw the tunnel-shaped MRI scanner in front of her at Harrogate District Hospital she felt like bolting.

Instead, the mother-of-four gritted her teeth and got inside. Within minutes, she was pressing the alarm and begging hospital staff: ‘Get me out of here.’

‘I’m not a wimp, but lying in that tiny, narrow space and not being able to move was too much,’ she recalls. ‘I started getting very sweaty and more and more anxious. Those few minutes felt like hours.’

Elaine’s GP suggested she have a second attempt at a conventional MRI scan but take sedatives beforehand. Elaine was still not keen, and after some research she discovered the upright open scanner in London, which she travelled south to use.

‘This time was so different — I felt much more relaxed,’ she says. ‘I was even able to watch my DVD of the BBC show Coast while the images of my hips were being taken.’

The scan, which was taken a year ago, revealed that Elaine has early-stage osteoarthritis.

Commenting on the new scanner, Dr Jane Barrett, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, says: ‘MRI has allowed major advances in the diagnosis of a significant number of conditions and is an important part of radiology services today.

‘We know there are a small number of patients who find it difficult to have an MRI in a conventional machine where they lie down during the scan, usually because they suffer from claustrophobia. For these people, an upright MRI scanner may be the solution.’

There is also one of the new scanners at the Leeds Upright MRI Centre.

Both centres see NHS as well as private patients. The fee for an upright open MRI scan is around 600, depending on the type of scan that is requested.