Where Mark gets his head examined

Last week I went in for my first MRI. 

Perhaps a little context is in order.

I’ve been dealing with recurring headaches for over a decade.  Most days they’re not too bad, and I can push them to the background and go about my business.  Every now and then they make sure they know who’s boss.  On those days, it’s all I can do to get through the minimum required tasks, and then climb into bed and go to sleep.

For most the past decade, Excedrin has been pretty good at knocking them out.  In the last couple of years, however, it was becoming less and less effective.  I would take a couple in the evenings with dinner, and it would take longer and longer for it to kick in.  Sometimes I would still have the headache when I went to bed.  Then late last summer, I found I was waking up with the headache from the night before.  Not a good sign.  That’s when I decided to stop taking the Excedrin altogether – if it wasn’t doing anything for me, there was no point in taking it in the first place.

I also decided to get a little more aggressive in working with my doctor at trying to figure what was causing them in the first place.  I had had a couple of conversations with him over the years about them, and we had lightly tried a few things – changing up my diet, changing work environments – things like that, but nothing seemed to make a difference.  Over the next several months, we tried several different prescription medications to alleviate the symptoms.  A couple of them seemed to work for a few weeks, but then the headaches would return to their previous intensity and frequency.  He then referred me to a neurologist.  The neurologist had me get my eyes examined thoroughly, but that didn’t turn up anything that would cause headaches.  The next step was the MRI. 

One of the first questions that they asked me when they were scheduling it was "Are you claustrophobic?" to which I responded, "Slightly".  Now, I’m basing that assessment on a trip we took to Florida two summers ago.  On our drive down, we stopped in Kentucky and went on the Lost River Cave Tour – a guided boat tour through a cave.  At the very beginning of the tour (and then again at the very end, since we came out the same way we went in), the cave ceiling came down to only a couple of feet above the water, and we all had to duck down into the boat to avoid hitting our heads.  I didn’t realize this would be a problem for me, but the thought of a few million pounds of rock hanging a few inches above my head really bothered me.  Of course, it was too late to do anything about it by that point, so I just gritted my teeth and tried to think about something else.  Once I got past that point, and the case opened up again, I was fine.  For some reason, having a few million pounds of rock hanging 30 FEET above my head didn’t bother me at all.

Therefore, I’ve concluded that I am "slightly" claustrophobic, and being stuffed into a torpedo tube for an hour is not my idea of a fun time.  The neurologist’s office was originally going to prescribe a medication that would "take the edge off", but ultimately scheduled me for an "open MRI".  That would mean I wouldn’t be in a torpedo tube at all, but rather I would get slid in between two large slabs of machinery mere inches from my head.

Not unlike being slid in between two large chunks of cave, mere inches from my head.

Hmm – maybe an open MRI isn’t such a hot idea after all.


An MRI generates powerful magnetic fields to create the images of the inside of my skull.  That means the doctors, nurses, and technicians running the MRI units need to be very, VERY careful about who they stuff into these machines.  When they called my house to make the initial appointment, they asked CJ if I had ever had any injuries to my eyes that would have resulted in metal fragments being left in them.  If so, the MRI would rip those out – probably fairly painfully.  CJ replied that I had not ever had an eye injury, but then made sure to double check with me to confirm that I had never ever had an eye injury (I hadn’t).

The morning of the test, I signed in at the imaging center, and then sat down in the waiting room to wait for my name to be called.  CJ went with me for moral support.  She kept telling me that as long as they found a brain, I was doing ok.  Thanks sweetie – love you, too.

I began to wonder out loud how much they would make me take off.  For example, I assumed they would make me remove my glasses, but let me keep my gold wedding band on (since gold isn’t magnetic).  But what about my belt?  Or my pants?  Are those far enough away from where they are scanning to not interfer?  What about my cell phone and keys?  Would they have a locker or someplace where I would lock that stuff up while the test was being run?

Ooh – would they have a "test wall" where they could see how much metal I had on me before sending me into the machine?

Test Wall

Alas, she just had me take off my watch, then change out of my jeans and into some scrub-pants.  Where’s the fun in that?

Once I had changed, she led me into the room with the MRI, and after taking my glasses from me, had me lay down onto the platform that would eventually be slid in between the two slabs.  My head would rest between two raised portions of the platform, presumably so it wouldn’t move while the machine scanned me.  She then placed a foam wedge under my knees to support them, and by extension my back (for which I was grateful).  Next, she gave me a pair of earplugs.  Now, I had heard (no pun intended) from other people that an MRI was loud, so the earplugs were a welcome addition.  Next, she wedged two additional blocks of foam between my head and the platform, just behind my ears, further immobilizing my head. 

She then asked me if I wanted a cloth to put over my eyes.  She explained that some people don’t like to see the machine up so close, and the cloth is a nice illusion.  I said no.  I wanted to be in control of my eyesight, and if I really needed to blank things out, I could just shut my eyes.

She then showed me what looked like a plexiglass (or I suppose it could have been a plastic) frame that she was going to snap in over and around my head, and explained that the machine would be scanning whatever was in the center.  The frame was just that – just open air directly in front of my face, but it had the effect of further immobilizing my head, and it cut down on my peripheral vision a bit.  For anyone that really had a problem with enclosed spaces, I think this would be the point at which the blood pressure would be rising.

She then gave me a hand-held panic-buzzer, and showed me how it works, and what it sounded like.  She said if I needed it, just press it and they would immediately stop the scan and haul me out.  I hoped I wouldn’t need it – I really didn’t want to have to go through all of this again.

She then explained that the technician would be talking to me throughout the scan, telling me when each test was going to start, and how long it was going to be.  She raised the platform into position, and then asked if I was ready.  I said I was.  She then slid me into the machine, and left the room.  The technician came on and said that the first test was about to begin.

It sounds like drums, like something out of the movie "Jumanji".  If monkeys break into the room, I’m pushing the panic button, I swear. 

The next test sounded like inside an Atari game, or possibly something early-Nintendo.  And then the platform started vibrating.

The next four or five tests sounded like different levels of a video game.  One of them was a boss level – I’m sure of it.  I should have asked the technician if he had enough quarters for the entire scan.

Then we hit the "80s heavy-metal guitar solo" test.  What key is that in, anyway?

Then we were back to 8-bit Nintendo gaming.

And then we were done.  I got slid out.  I got changed back into my street clothes.  I met CJ, and we came home.


All in all, it really wasn’t as bad as I had feared, but in many ways not what I had expected.