MRI Scanner – What Makes That Banging Noise?

For those of us who are advancing in years, it would be unusual to hear of of anyone with health issues who has not at least heard of the claustrophobic MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine. My first experience was back in the 1980s when I needed a scan of my lower back as a prerequisite to surgery.

One must understand that, at the time, this was the newest and greatest machine available to pinpoint why I was suffering from such disabling back pain that I was unable to perform everyday tasks — such as tying my own shoes. Because of the pain, I had sought out a neurologist who had already tried to treat the symptoms with an array of known medications and through physical therapy. However, nothing had brought the desired results or relieved the horrible pain in my aching back.

Knowing that options were becoming limited, he then told me about a machine called an MRI. This machine was different than the standard x-ray machine in that it worked through the use of magnets and had been proven to see what was going on inside of the skeletal frame. Not understanding what this test would entail, I can still recall how on that day I arrived with a sense of trepidation. The first thing that the clinician instructed me to do was to remove all of my clothing and jewelry (including my wedding ring). They then gave me one of those open-in-the-back hospital gowns that we all detest. For those of you who have experienced the joy of exposing your posterior to the world, you know exactly what I am talking about.

Once I had complied, they then directed me to a machine that reminded me of a tight chamber that you might find when climbing through passageways of a cave. That in itself was not reassuring, but I did as asked. Once settled in this airless tunnel, I was then given several instructions that needed to be followed in order for the scan to function properly. These instructions included the following:

  • No movement was allowed. This could distort the image.
  • If I needed help, there was a built-in microphone and speaker to request assistance.
  • There would be a loud noise during the entire test and I shouldn’t let it bother me.

Before this experience, I had never considered myself claustrophobic, but being in this machine changed the way that I would forever feel about small, cramped spaces. This feeling was complicated by the lack of ventilation, which made it seem as if I was breathing in my own carbon dioxide instead of fresh air. Additionally, the loud noise that they had warned me about could have been compared to the sound of a jackhammer beating inside of a drum, and it resulted in a horrendous headache. Like all unpleasant experiences, it finally ended, but it left me feeling weak and totally drained of strength. Needless to say, it was definitely an unpleasant experience.

With this experience in mind, I wasn’t excited when, last Monday, my doctor said that I needed an MRI scan to confirm that I had torn my rotator cuff. However, being the adult that I am, I arrived for the test on time. When I was called back, the prep went the same with the removal of all metal etc., but during this test, things were different. These are a few differences I noted:

  • I was given ear plugs to muffle the banging sound.
  • The tube I slid into seemed to be more accommodating in size.
  • The technicians gave me a set of earphones that channeled music into the machine.
  • The machine now blew fresh air over my body, making it easier to breathe.

With these changes, the test was much more tolerable and basically uneventful. Of course, it helped that I had already prepared myself for the experience. I chose to keep my brain occupied during the test by concentrating on one specific topic. My wife had also suggested that I try to take a nap — something that works for her.

At the end of the test, I asked one of the technicians, “What is that banging sound’ when the MRI scan is run?” He kindly gave me a quick rundown of what happens during the testing procedure.

There are apparently large metal coils inside of the MRI scanner called gradient coils that electricity passes through. This electricity passing through the metal coils creates a magnetic field that sends out magnetic waves. These waves then measure the tissue in our bodies and produce an image. The banging noise occurs when this large amount of electricity hits the coils which, in turn, causes them to vibrate. The technician also explained that an MRI scan is the best technique to find brain tumors and to determine if a tumor has spread to other areas of the brain.

MRI scans are a valuable tool to doctors in many fields as they can provide an image of the following body areas:

  • Brain and spinal cord
  • Joints and bones
  • Heart and blood vessels
  • Any internal organ — including the heart or lungs

Be assured that if your doctor recommends that you get an MRI scan, it is necessary since it is one of the only ways for them to get a clear image and make an accurate diagnosis. I promise you that you will survive and, even if it appears frightening, you just need to close your eyes and think about something else.

Comments welcome.

CC licensed Flickr photo above shared by stumayhew

Article Written by

I have been writing for LockerGnome since relocating to Missouri seven years ago, where I continue to be a technology enthusiast who enjoys playing with the newest and latest gadgets.

  • KevinD

    A couple of Valium (diazepam) about 30 minutes before made my MRI experience a lot nicer.  No music, but ear plugs and a nice pair of shooting ear muffs made it low enough to not give me a headache.

  • http://www.mstechpages.com/ Dustin Harper

    I’ve had a few MRI’s done and am going in for my 4th for a lower back injury (fused, now). The first one wasn’t so bad, but the second two must have been older technology. A lot louder.

    Good info!

  • IDunnoAtal

    how long do they normally last for?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1492748871 Paul Tomczyk

    I had to get one a few months ago, I’m 15 and I have scoliosis and I needed to get one done for them to be able to analyze it better. The room looked very futuristic, it was lit up by LED’s in the walls and I had all the things you had on your recent test, and they even gave me these goggles with a screen in them and a headset so I could watch a movie. Apparently I moved too much, so they had to re-do some images and it’s about 20 minutes per image. It ended up taking around 2 and a half to 3 hours, and overall wasn’t a very good experience. I think it had air-conditioning, but I came out sweating.

  • Ralph Worlein

    I guess I was destined to have an experience with an MRI machine. Being the biggest guy in school the coaches hated me because I was playing in a rock band and had no use for sports. I did amazing feats of strength though to impress the girls…….being a teenage boy I did not realize til later they were just rolling their eyes while I set the stage for later back problems.
    Early in my work life my back gave me a lot of trouble and I went into the hospital in Wichita, Ks. for an MRI. This one was already old, a tunnel that just missed my nose, my impression of a very large coffin. The nurse asked if I was claustrophobic and I related the story about my dad sending me under the house where I got stuck with spider webs all over my face and yes, terribly so. She reassured me she would be right outside and slid me into the machine. I said I’m doing all right…..no answer. Hello? Hey!  And then with a “Get me the hell out of here!” Coming out I could see her coming out from behind a big thick glass fifteen feet away. They finally succeeded with some coaxing and I laid inside, eyes closed tightly  and knowing that if a nuclear war broke out I would be forever entombed in a large mass of metal in a Kansas hospital.

  • Kapprinno

    I guess I was destined to have an experience with an MRI machine. Being the biggest guy in school the coaches hated me because I was playing in a rock band and had no use for sports. I did amazing feats of strength though to impress the girls…….being a teenage boy I did not realize til later they were just rolling their eyes while I set the stage for later back problems.
    Early in my work life my back gave me a lot of trouble and I went into the hospital in Wichita, Ks. for an MRI. This one was already old, a tunnel that just missed my nose, my impression of a very large coffin. The nurse asked if I was claustrophobic and I related the story about my dad sending me under the house where I got stuck with spider webs all over my face and yes, terribly so. She reassured me she would be right outside and slid me into the machine. I said I’m doing all right…..no answer. Hello? Hey!  And then with a “Get me the hell out of here!” Coming out I could see her coming out from behind a big thick glass fifteen feet away. They finally succeeded with some coaxing and I laid inside, eyes closed tightly  and knowing that if a nuclear war broke out I would be forever entombed in a large mass of metal in a Kansas hospital.

  • Frozenoem

    Lot’s of luck if you end up with the surgery for rotator cuff injury – 3 rips and complete tears.

    Anyone getting an MRI should always grab a copy of the MRI images. It’s downright funky the views of your body that become visible. For Rotator people’s white dots are deep do do.
    Experiencing the joy of becoming a right-ie for the first time since Sr. Maria took the rod to me for being cussed by the hand of Satan.

  • http://twitter.com/PappyCrux JWS / JDubbia

    There are few things that enjoy less than a MRI. The only thing I could think about was, this must be what it would be like in a coffin. When a I get in such a state that a MRI is required, the pain has already passed the point of questioning why I would have to go through the unpleasantness. I hope there is nothing but good health for you ahead.

  • BillP

    Where I go for MRI’s has glasses with mirrors in them that allow you to watch a TV at the foot of the bed.  They also give head phones to hear what ever channel you pick to watch. Helps to cut down on the noise a little.

  • http://twitter.com/USpace123 U.Space

    I found that sleep shades help a lot, and also a xanax or something makes it much easier to relax, just ask your doctor.

  • Beezeetop

    I’ve been in the tunnel too, due to some neck injury. It’s curious though, you’re asked to remove all metallic objects like rings, piercings etc. asked about any implants or embedded metal which could be tugged around by the fierce magnetic fields, but then you are allowed a headset and video goggles to wear (which I presume would contain metals). Never could figure that one out.

    • Thoarfrost

      arent you lucky! i go in bare… mine today i had nothing, even the mirror they set up was looking up my nose! pretty.. not, or should i say snot.. i made up some funky tunes, quite dark i must admit, industrial german electronic experimental art muzix…. felt like id been to a rock concert… and all giddy at noon when out… i can totally understand why its very freaky and disconcerting to a lot of people, especially the elderly… keeping still.. its not a situation to take lightly, im very scared now of the results, i had a brain tumour, and an arachnoid cyst in my upper spine, so its not something I can take as a fun thing. FAR from. i think the only way to get through is to grit yr teeth and go through it like any other horrid thing hospitals do to you, to help you… its a blessing in disguise as they say.. we hope.

  • Thoarfrost

    i had my first one aged 29, and ive had them regularly since, so im used to it, and i love the machine.. it saved my life.. twice. today i had one, and as usual, i made up tunes and songs to the banging and thumping.. maybe you have to understand german industrial electronic music, not for the elderly i understand…. i just relax myself. i had the injection, i loathe needles, so they put a canula in, for no good reason as they had no dye this time… this machine is a saviour… when in there and it banging away, liisten for the other noises behind is my suggestion, one sounds like a waterfall… sounds silly , and close your eyes. ive had so many i know how to cope, i did get an itchy nose and pins and needles, you CAN move between the scans to itch or move a little…  if anyone has any worries about it, feel free to contact me.