Could claustrophobia prevent people from seeking medical treatment?

A new poll reveals that claustraphobia is a real problem for Brits, so much so that as many as a third of us admit to struggling with a fear of tight spaces at least some of the time.  New research reveals it is much more common than we realised, and could even be preventing people seeking treatment if the diagnostic process includes an MRI scan.

The poll, carried out by Medserena Upright MRI Centres, saw over half (57%) of those affected by claustrophobia saying they experience it ‘sometimes’, with a further 14% saying they suffered ‘often’.

The problem is worst amongst women, with 36% suffering compared with 27% of men, according to a new poll, and as many as 40% of 18-24 year olds are afflicted, falling gradually with age before rising again slightly amongst those 55+.

The report surprised even the researchers.

“Previous studies have indicated that around 12% of people in the UK suffer from claustrophobia,” comments Professor Francis Smith, Medical Director at Medserena.

“So for our new research to show it’s actually a third of adults suggests the problem is more widespread than originally thought.  Particularly given that half of them describe their symptoms as ‘moderate’, as opposed to just ‘mild’ (44%)”. 

So what is it that makes us so scared? Well, the top three nightmare scenarios cited by respondents include:

  • being in a small room with no windows (54%),
  • crowded places (51%) and
  • a ‘tunnel’ MRI scanner (45%).

Nearly a quarter of those surveyed thought that having been trapped in a confined space was the root cause of their claustrophobia, with a further fifth citing a traumatic or stressful life experience such as a bereavement.

Sufferers report symptoms including a general feeling of panic (71%), shortness of breath/hyper-ventilation (45%) and sweating/chills (33%).

 Surprisingly, just 15% have tried medication and 17% psychological therapy such as CBT.

It seems the most common technique to cope with the condition is avoidance, with a massive 65% of sufferers simply avoiding situations which would trigger their fears, whilst 41% rely on breathing techniques and 33% try to focus on peaceful and relaxing images.

The level of fears triggered by a traditional enclosed MRI scan were unsurprisingly quite high.  Over half (57%) of those who had been scanned in an enclosed MRI tunnel reported that they had felt ‘very nervous and claustrophobic’. A further 10% were so nervous they required sedation and another 13% asked for the process to be stopped altogether.  

 71% of those surveyed said they would prefer an open, upright MRI scan where they could sit or stand with nothing in front of them and would opt for this if given the choice.  Just 11% chose the option of lying down in a conventional tube.

Meanwhile over three quarters (76%) of respondents agreed that the NHS should automatically offer open, upright MRI scans to people suffering from claustrophobia.  Worryingly, a quarter of claustrophobic patients (25%) said they would prefer to leave their condition untreated, if they were very frightened of the medical test to diagnose it.