Easing the MRI Experience for Patients with Claustrophobia

The following article was written by Mark Mamlouk, MD, clinical instructor and chief fellow in neuroradiology at UCSF.

Having an MRI at UCSF doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience. As one patient in our Precision Spine and Peripheral Nerve Center recently said,

Everyone is very kind and friendly. They make a very unpleasant MRI manageable and tolerable. The staff is very understanding of my claustrophobia. I cannot thank them enough for their support.


Many people talk about MRI and claustrophobia (fear of being in a closed space) based on what they have heard or experienced in the past. Not all of this is true today, and certainly not at UCSF Medical Center. Older MRI machines had narrower tunnels than the modern MRI equipment at UCSF. These older machines were often relatively dark, and the scanner's ceiling was very close to the patient’s face and head.

UCSF has taken several measures to help those who expect to feel claustrophobic during MRI. For example:

  • All scanners are fully lit, ventilated, and open at both ends. UCSF has invested in the latest MRI machines that have wider openings and better lighting in the scanner tunnel. These machines greatly improve patients’ comfort during the exam and also yield higher resolution so the images are clearer.
  • The state-of-the-art MRI scanners have “motion correction” imaging that allows for a faster examination. That means the patient is in the scanner for a shorter time.
  • For some MRI exams, depending on the body part being imaged, the patient’s head may not need to be inside the scanner at all. This dramatically lowers the expectation or experience of claustrophobia. For example, exams of the knee, foot or leg do not require patients to enter the MRI scanner tube completely—only the leg is in the tube.
  • Speakers and microphones inside the scanner enable the technologist to communicate with the patient and hear what the patient says. There is also a call button (in the form of a squeeze ball) so the patient can let the technologist know if there are any problems during the procedure.
  • Patients can be given earplugs or a headset to help block out noise from the scanner.
  • In some cases patients may be able to watch a video with soothing nature scenes to help them relax during the exam.

What’s more, the MRI suites at the new UCSF hospitals at Mission Bay are designed to reduce anxiety and claustrophobia and stimulate feelings of comfort and calm.

Different themes in the rooms distract adult patients by engaging them to enjoy a Golden Gate Bridge sunset, revel in the tranquility of Muir Woods, or opt for some other soothing experience thanks to images projected on the suites’ walls and ceiling. Patients can admire lush visuals and listen to the sounds of nature or soothing music that they select themselves.

The pediatric MRI suites are child-friendly, inspire fascination for kids and their parents, and allow parents to interact with their child.  Room themes invite kids to take a ride on a cable car, captain a boat, or opt for other adventures.

At UCSF we treat each patient like the individual he or she is. We try to find the most comfortable and easiest method for the patient to successfully complete their MRI.

We believe that some anxiety about having an MRI exam may be relieved if the patient understands more about MRI, including how MRI works and what to expect during the procedure.

Some patients may still feel unable to control their fears or that they will be terribly uncomfortable due to back pain, breathing issues or something else. In those cases, the patient’s primary doctor can consult with one of our radiologists to determine the best plan for the patient. The contact number for patients with questions regarding special help during an MRI is (415) 353-4030.

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