A CT scan can lead to a diagnosis of your symptoms, but can it also do more harm than good? Learn about common medical imaging tests and your risks of radiation exposure.
Say you visit your doctor for this abdominal discomfort you’ve been having for the last few days. You are ecstatic when she suggests a CT scan of your stomach as a possible test to find out what’s wrong. “Great,” you say, “now we can look into my stomach and actually see what it could possibly be!”
But have you ever considered about the price you’d have to pay for that image? I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about radiation exposure. Most patients have no idea the amount of radiation one CT scan exposes them to. Why would it matter anyways? Let’s find out in today’s episode.
What is Radiation?
Radiation is really just energy, in the form of particles or waves, moving through space. Heat and light are considered radiation, but those types of radiation are not potentially harmful to us. However, ionizing radiation is another story – this type of radiation is considered “unstable” because it has excess energy that it needs to “shake off.” And that shaking off is really what is potentially harmful to us. This is what is used in common radiologic testing – such as x-rays and CT scans. This is what we are talking about when we say something is “radioactive.” You can check out Ask Science’s excellent episode called What Is Radiation? for more.
Should We Worry About Radiation from Medical Imaging?
In the U.S., radiation exposure from medical imaging has been steadily rising for the last 30 years. In fact, half of the radiation exposure we get comes from medical imaging. Why does radiation matter? Well, it’s associated with the development of cancer. How does it do this? Radiation can cause damage to our DNA, our genetic makeup, and that can cause our cells to go out of whack and potentially become cancerous. And cancer can develop decades after the exposure, not necessarily right away. Some of the most common radiation-induced cancers are leukemias, bone cancers, thyroid cancers, breast cancers, lung cancers, and skin cancers.