The Difference Between a Cat Scan & an MRI for the Claustrophobic

Updated April 17, 2017

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computed Tomography (CT) scans produce highly developed images of your internal body. The CT machine takes a series of X-rays to view cancers, broken bones, internal bleeding or clots and any other anomalies. An MRI uses large magnetic rays to observe your ligaments, brain and spinal cord. Regardless of your illness, few people enjoy medical scans. For the claustrophobic patient, however, an MRI is significantly more traumatic than a CAT scan for a variety of reasons related to the differences between the two procedures.

Machine Design

An MRI machine resembles a large canister on its side with a narrow tube in the middle. During a scan, you lie down on a moving tray which slides inside the canister. Depending on the purpose of the scan, the technician may close the openings at both ends leaving you inside a completely sealed, darkened cylinder. For a claustrophobic, being completely encapsulated like this can produce an incredible amount of anxiety. The CAT scan on the other hand, is shaped more like a large doughnut where you lie on a tray which moves in and out of the circle taking multiple X-rays. The CAT scanner is much less confining than an MRI machine.

Availability of Light

If you're claustrophobic or have a fear of caskets, it's important to know that the inside of an MRI machine is completely dark. For some, the darkness conceals the tube's narrow interior while others find the enclosed darkness just as frightening. Conversely, a CAT scan is similar to lying on a moving tray in an exam room while passing through a giant ring. There is no darkness during a CAT scan because you are never completely enclosed by the machine.

Duration of the Procedure

A CAT scan lasts only a few minutes and is completely silent, but an MRI scan often lasts an hour if not more. If you are claustrophobic, this can feel like an eternity, particularly with the loud, stamping sounds of the machine throughout the MRI scan.

Tips for the MRI scheduled claustrophobic

Understand that you're not the first patient to be terrified of an MRI machine and that there are some ways to help make the experience easier. Ask the technician for a towel to cover your eyes, this will prevent you from seeing the narrow inside of the machine. You can also bring music and headphones for the technician to play during your MRI. This will drown out the loud stamping noise inside the tube. Finally, if you anticipate having a panic or anxiety attack while undergoing an MRI scan, ask your physician for a strong sedative to take right before the test.

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About the Author

Christina Bednarz Schnell began writing full-time in 2010. Her areas of expertise include child development and behavior, medical conditions and pet health. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international relations.