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For nervous patients, MRI goes to the dogs

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | May 06, 2011
Better than Valium?
As the world -- or at least, the substantial part of it that wastes time on the Internet -- debates which breed of war dog accompanied the 79 Navy SEALs who stormed Osama bin Laden's compound and killed the terrorist mastermind in Pakistan earlier in the week, a study suggests another, peaceful use for man's best friend: relaxing worried MRI patients.

To get a clear image during an MRI exam, a patient has to keep still, which can be hard for those unnerved by the MRI's narrow confines, especially in older machines. A 1998 study by University of British Columbia psychologists found about a quarter of adult patients experience moderate to severe anxiety during their first MRI exam.

And the most panicky or claustrophobic patients can even need tranquilizers or other anti-anxiety drugs.
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Currently, about 15 percent of patients can't undergo an MRI exam without receiving calming medication, according to Dr. Richard Ruchman, who co-wrote the study and presented it last week at the American Roentgen Ray Society's annual meeting in Chicago.

But Ruchman suggests playing with therapy dogs before getting the exam could be a "non-invasive" alternative to using drugs -- and, naturally, one that might have fewer side effects.

The idea for the project actually came from his daughter, 16-year-old Allison Ruchman, who ran the study. Allison, now a certified dog therapist, originally hit upon the idea when she had a scan to examine why she had recurring headaches, according to an ABC News report. She told the news outlet when she had her exam, thinking of her 5-year-old Beagle, Wally, made her relax.

In the study, performed at Monmouth Medical Center,a 527 bed teaching hospital in Long Branch, N.J., 28 patients spent time with or played with a certified therapy dog for 15 minutes half an hour before their MRI was scheduled. Another six patients had no doggy time before their scan.

For the 28 patients who played with or were near the dog, self-reported anxiety fell an average of 13.96 units on the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Adults, a standard 40-item test used by psychologists to gauge anxiety.

In the test, the score runs from 20 to 80: the higher, the more anxious. For the patients who played with the dog, the average state anxiety score was 43 before playing with the dog. After playing with the dog, it dropped to 29.04.

For the six patients who didn't play with the dog, the score remained almost unchanged: going from 32.67 to 32.83.

"To my knowledge, this is the first study that has particularly addressed animal-assisted therapy in the radiology department, and I believe that many applications of could flow from our findings," Ruchman said in a statement.

It should be cautioned the sample size for the study was very small, and it was presented at a conference and has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal yet. The results therefore should be considered preliminary.

Would you use dogs to calm patients in your MRI suite? Let us know your thoughts below.

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