Radiation Safety

Every person’s health situation is unique, and several factors should be considered when determining whether a medical imaging procedure is right for you or a family member.

Many diseases and conditions can be diagnosed with state-of-the-art diagnostic imaging equipment that uses ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation is a form of energy used to perform certain diagnostic imaging procedures, like computer tomography (CT) scans. Still, unnecessary radiation exposure during medical procedures should be avoided whenever possible. Studies have shown that people exposed to high levels of ionizing radiation may have an increased risk of cancer.

According to two separate studies on CT scans in the New England Journal of Medicine, the risk of cancer from a single CT scan could be as high as one in 80. And up to 2 percent of all cancers in the U. S. may be caused by radiation received from CT scans. A 2009 report on CT scans in the Archives of Internal Medicine said that 29,000 future cancers can be attributed to CT scans performed in just one year (2007).

However, not all imaging procedures require radiation. If your doctor recommends a CT scan or other test that uses ionizing radiation, ask them if another test, such as an ultrasound, might be an option for you. A different type of test may provide your doctor with the information they need.

"There is no question that when used appropriately, diagnostic imaging delivers tremendous benefit and value," says Thomas Dehn, M.D., chief medical officer of the National Imaging Associates. "However, there is no safe or justifiable amount of radiation from a clinically unnecessary test."

Medical Diagnostic Imaging Procedures that Use Radiation

  • X-rays. X-rays pass through your body to form pictures on film or on a computer or television monitor, which are viewed by a radiologist.
  • CT Scans. Also called computerized tomography or CAT scans. A CT scan is an X-ray technique that uses higher doses of radiation to produce images of your body’s internal structures in cross-sections.
  • Nuclear Medicine. In nuclear medicine procedures, you are given a small amount of radioactive material to inhale, inject or swallow. A camera detects energy given off by the radioactive material in your body and forms a picture of the organs and their function on a computer monitor.

Medical Diagnostic Imaging Procedures that Do Not Use Radiation

  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Also known as MRI, this technique uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the organs and tissues within your body.
  • Ultrasound. Also called sonography or diagnostic medical sonography, this imaging method uses high-frequency sound waves to produce images of the structures within your body.

When Your Child Needs a Scan

Children are generally more sensitive to radiation from medical imaging scans. Image Gently is a national initiative sponsored by the Alliance for Radiation Safety in Pediatric Imaging, which was founded by the Society for Pediatric Radiology, the American College of Radiology, the American Society of Radiologic Technologists, and the American Association of Physicists in Medicine. Image Gently educates parents and health care professionals about the special precautions required for children undergoing radiological imaging.

Image Gently recommends the following when performing scans on children:

  1. Image when there is a clear medical benefit.
  2. Use the lowest amount of radiation for adequate imaging based on the size of the child.
  3. Image only the indicated area.
  4. Avoid multiple scans.
  5. Use alternative diagnostic studies that don’t involve ionizing radiation (such as ultrasound or MRI) when possible.

Since the Image Gently campaign launched in January 2008, more than 1,400 imaging providers representing more than 1,000 imaging facilities have taken the Image Gently pledge to reduce the radiation dose used in pediatric CT scans. For more information, visit Image Gently.

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