What Patients Should Know About CT Scans and Other Imaging Tests

Last week, we wrote about how more hospitals and doctors are overprescribing potentially dangerous imaging tests for minor health problems. Medical tests such as X-rays, CT scans and MRIs are being used to diagnose back pain, headaches, stomach aches and other common conditions. Although these conditions might be serious, the overuse of imaging tests can come with significant patient safety risks.

X-Rays and CT Scans: Computerized axial tomography scans, also known as CT scans, and X-rays are used to diagnose thousands of health conditions. These imaging tests use ionizing radiation to peer into the insides of patients, and can diagnose broken bones, appendicitis and other major health conditions. However, CT scans can expose patients to radiation levels several hundred times higher than X-rays.

Because CT scans use ionizing radiation, patients can face an increased risk of cancer. Researchers with the National Cancer Institute have suggested that out of the 72 million CT scans performed in 2007, 29,000 could result in future cancers. Presently, about 1 in 10 Americans receive CT scans every year. The problem is not that CT scans are used, as they are sometimes needed to diagnose potentially fatal health conditions, but the overuse of these tests on the same patients.

MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging, also known as MRI, uses powerful magnets and magnetic dyes to create internal images of patients. Some patients can be serious injured by MRI scans. If for example, a patient has shrapnel lodged in muscle tissue or bone, a cochlear implant or a pacemaker, the powerful magnets can cause significant harm. For other unlucky patients, the dye used in MRI tests can cause kidney failure.

CT Scans and Imaging Tests Can Be Risky

These tests are often necessary to detect and treat potentially fatal illnesses. However, that is not to say these tests do not come without risks. Patients should always open a line of communication with their doctors to discuss what these risks are and how they can be mitigated. Other less dangerous imaging tests, such as ultrasound, might be an alternative to discuss with doctors.