MRI Talk - What Is It Like to Have an MRI?

Maybe you've noticed, maybe you haven't. I haven't been sharing much about my performance experiences this season. The reason for this is because I have barely performed since the 2013-2014 dance season. I spent the end of this past summer and all of fall in Anchorage directing Alaska Dance Theatre. Upon returning, I coached a few of my students successfully through the Youth America Grand Prix semi-finals in Philadelphia, taught a handful of master classes, started sending out my choreography in search of commissions, and am working on another choreography project that I soon hope to share with you all. A lot is still going on in my freelance career, but my 2014 - 2015 season has been more about growing outside of my performance career and healing my body.

Coaching one of my students for Youth America Grand Prix at the Alvin Ailey studios
I've had injuries before, just like every professional dancer I know. But my most recent injury has been much different than any I've had in the past. While the initial injury was extremely painful and immobilizing, unlike other injuries, I have never had such an odd recovery period. In the past, I have seen marked improvement with rest, physical therapy, and time. But this time around, my gains have been marred by multiple steps back in pain and inflammation.

With my current injury, I seemed to be on the right track to recovery with physical therapy and my continuing obsession with maintaining my core strength. But when I came home from Alaska and had difficulty finding practitioners that would accept my Alaskan insurance, I was forced to continue treatment on my own. I kept up my exercises and saw a chiropractor regularly, but my pain was continuing to come back. And it was coming back stronger than it was before.

This graffiti I found in Philly perfectly represents how I felt
What I found particularly odd was that I still had my full mobility and range of movement in my body. I was taking ballet class, struggling through the first few combinations until I was warm. Then once I got warm, I could do most anything without pain, except lift my leg behind me. By the time class was over, I would feel good for about 20 minutes before my back would start to seize up. It got to the point where I couldn't sit for more than five minutes.

What confused me even more about this injury was that I couldn't figure out how to take care of it. I had been dancing in pain for some time, so I took a week off. When I took that week off, the pain got worse. So, I assumed that keeping blood flowing through those achey muscles must have benefitted them. I finally decided to take an entire month off in the middle of February and was lucky to finally find a practitioner that would treat me with my insurance.

After months of pain, struggle, and frustration, I was finally able to get a much overdue MRI yesterday. Having this type of imaging of my injury would finally give me a clue as to what has been happening in my body since October. As I prepared my MRI-seasoned self, I had to remind myself what I was getting into before I went through with the process.

Anybody that has had an MRI could quite easily scare you to death by explaining the procedure. Most people wince at the prospect of being shoved into a coffin-like tube of cacophony. But if you understand what you are getting yourself into and mentally prepare accordingly, you will have no problem acing this scan in a shavasana-like state.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine, or MRI
What exactly is an MRI? MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Essentially, this style of imaging, or looking inside your body noninvasively, is like a much, much more detailed X-ray (without radiation) for whichever part of the body needs to be studied. According to the Mayo Clinic website, an "MRI is a technique that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the organs and tissues in the body." While I could go into more detail about what exactly happens to make an MRI scan work, I'd prefer to move on to the experience of getting an MRI.

Before I left home for my appointment yesterday, I left all of my jewelry at home and took out my earring. Since magnets are used for these scans, you can't have any loose metal on your body. I don't know exactly what would happen, but I imagine some Matrix-like shit going down where you are lifted off the table from your ear. All kidding aside, you seriously can't have any metal on your body. There are questionnaires about pace-makers and signs about watches being destroyed. So, make sure that you leave most of your valuables at home before you head to the facility to be seen and speak up if you have any metal objects inside your body.

After arriving you will answer questionnaires about general health and metal objects in your body (shrapnel, pace-maker, etc.). Then you will be moved into a changing room to put on a gown or pair of paper shorts, which depends on the part of your body you are having scanned (I only had to put on paper shorts and got to keep my underwear, socks, and shirt on). Once you've changed and locked your belongings in a locker, you will be brought into the MRI room.

There is no specific protocol for being prepped to get your scan done, but I will give you a general idea of what happens. You will be asked a few questions that you have probably already answered, like, "Are you wearing a watch?" Then, you will be given ear plugs to put in your ears, which you will want to make sure are secure before you are put into the machine. Sometimes, facilities will have headphones with music. Once you are prepped, you will be asked to lay down on what looks like a table without legs. When they ask you if you would like a blanket, say yes. Take the blanket whether you want it or not. It gets quite cold and lonely in there.

Is it an MRI machine?
Once placed on the table, you will be scrolled into a very tight, cannoli-like tube. If you have severe anxiety issues relating to small spaces, be sure to ask your doctor before your appointment about possible medication (usually valium) to calm your nerves for the procedure. One of the last things you will be told by the technicians before you can't see more than the creme-colored ceiling of the machine will be, "Stay as still as possible." Any movement by the patient can distort the imaging process. If you move too much, it will only extend the amount of time you are stuck in the tube. Usually (but not always), you will be given a panic button in one of your hands to squeeze if you start to feel overly claustrophobic or present symptoms of a panic attack. Relax! You won't need to use this. I suggest keeping your eyes closed as the technicians put you into the machine and just keep them closed until they move you out of the machine.

If it seems that this procedure is already stressful enough, you are given those earplugs early on for a major reason. Very few things in life, besides concerts and airplanes, can mimic the sound of an MRI machine doing it's job. According to the California Institute of Technology, an MRI is so noisy "because its magnetic field is created by running electrical current through a coiled wire—an electromagnet. When the current is switched on, there is an outward force all along the coil. And because the magnetic field is so strong, the force on the coil is very large." Essentially, you are in a small space with an overzealous magnetic tap dancer practicing like there is no tomorrow on the tube you have found yourself in. While many people find this noise unpleasant, I close my eyes and choreograph movement to the techno sound of the electromagnetic noises passing over (and through) my body. If you focus on something other than what is really happening, the time passes much more quickly and you will be out of the machine before you know it. 

If you are able to stay still and manage your fears and phobias, most MRI's don't really last too long. And, honestly, they really aren't that bad. The worst thing that could happen is that they have to pull you out. You are not stuck inside the machine. Once you are finished, you are brought out of the tube and can go about your day as if nothing unusual happened to you. You will either be given a CD or physical scans of the part of your body that was being reviewed. Be sure to bring these with you to your next doctor appointment.

An MRI scan (not my own)
As for me, I was lucky enough to get my scans looked at only 24 hours (this morning) after I had them taken. Since this injury has been so odd and lengthy, I went into my appointment prepared for some pretty bad news. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the doctor tell me that I will recover and be out of pain again. Honestly, I had convinced myself that I would be given the career-ending injury conversation. While I still need more rest, therapy, and work to recover, I should be able to dance again and live my life without any pain (beyond normal dancer aches). While I may not be able to perform for the rest of this season, I will dance again. Perhaps, the best news I've heard in a long time! So, for the time being, I look forward to continuing to push my choreography, pass on my craft, and share my stories.

Can't wait to move like this again (Photo: J.J. Tiziou)


  1. dancer and injuries go hand in hand. It dosen't matter if you are technically sound dancer or just a beginner. Dancers always dance with full energy and injuries are unavoidable. I am a very new reader of your blog and a dancer/choreographer in India. thanks for the detailed account of MRI. wishing you healthy n quick recovery.

  2. What you say is true. Whether minor or major, every dancer has to deal with injury at some point in their training and/or career. Thanks for reading and for your kind words!

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I am taking my son to his first MRI tomorrow and he is so nervous. I do not know if it just sounds scary to him or if he has heard a scary story about it. But he is stressed out about it. I am going to have him read this so he can see.

    Kacey @ Glendale MRI

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kacey! I'm glad that you found this post. I know a lot of people that are very scared of this often claustrophobic experience. I hope that this post helps calm his nerves.