When you’re sick or injured and your doctor wants to run a test, you probably simply say yes, and schedule it. That’s understandable. You want answers, and your doctor is supposed to know best.
But the fear and urgency that come with an illness or injury can also cloud your judgment. In your search for answers, you may not take the time to ask all the right questions.
That’s why it’s important to understand radiation risks for medical imaging tests NOW, before you get sick, so that you can make an educated choice when the time comes.
And it will be a choice, because sometimes these tests are indeed necessary, and even life-saving. But in some cases, there are alternatives too. Alternatives which can give you results that are just as accurate, without exposing you to further damage.
FDA urges caution with medical imaging tests
In fact, understanding the radiation risks of these tests is so important that back in 2011 the FDA even got involved. The agency launched a multi-tiered campaign to help people like us make informed decisions about medical imaging tests.
The FDA stresses that it’s important for health professionals to always:
- Be sure the use of any test that exposes a patient to radiation is justified
- Ensure the amount of radiation used in the treatment is the lowest, effective dose
You know it’s time to sit up and pay attention when even the sleepy FDA says that that doctors are ordering these tests a bit too freely.
Exposure to radiation from medical imaging tests rising
Although we’re all exposed to smaller amounts of natural radiation every day, our exposure from medical imaging tests is on the rise. In fact, according to Harvard Medical School, overall exposure to radiation from medical imaging has skyrocketed.
In the 1980s, medical imaging accounted for about 15 percent of our total radiation exposure. But today, that number has jumped to 50 percent.
We measure radiation in millisieverts, or mSv. For reference, survivors of the atomic bombs dropped in WWII who later developed cancer were blasted with less than 50 mSv.
None of the common medical imaging tests exposes you to that much radiation at once. But the problem is while no single test is going to expose you to dangerous levels of radiation, the cumulative effect of several tests over the course of a lifetime could.
Each test causes microscopic damage to your cells and DNA. Over time, the accumulated damage can increase your risk for cancer even years after the tests were completed.
Medical imaging tests to use caution with
So what are these tests? What are their risks? And what are your alternatives?
There are two tests in particular, you should be aware of…
The most common of the medical imaging tests is the x-ray. X-rays are often used to check for broken bones. They’re also ordered by dentists to diagnose dental problems and doctors use them to diagnose cancer. A chest radiograph or mammogram, for example may be done to look for cancer in the lungs or chest or tumors in the breasts.
Depending on what needs a picture, an x-ray comes in at .001 mSv for an arm or leg x-ray, to 1.5 mSv for a lumbar spine x-ray.
Ultrasound, which use high frequency sound waves instead of radiation, can sometimes be used in place of an x-ray.
2. CT or CAT scan:
While CT scans can help diagnose everything from injuries to cancer, both their use and the level of radiation used for them is on the rise. Many doctors order them simply as a precaution, without even considering if they’re necessary. In fact, it’s not uncommon for different specialists treating the same patient to order separate scans, instead of simply reading the original one.
And this is in spite of the fact that studies out of the UK and the US have linked CT scans in children to an increased risk for cancer once they become adults. CT scans can produce anywhere from 2 mSv for a head CT, to 16 mSv for an angiogram.
Ultrasound or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), neither of which uses radiation, can sometimes be used instead. And x-rays, which deliver a lower dose of radiation, may be an option in some cases as well.
4 key questions to ask about medical imaging tests
As we mentioned earlier, there is no question that sometimes these tests are worthwhile. Which means you shouldn’t write them off entirely. The key is to use them wisely.
When your doctor mentions medical imaging tests, ask these four critical questions:
- Is the test medically necessary?
- Is there an alternative that will give the information we need? (Ultrasounds and MRIs don’t use radiation at all, and may work just as well, depending on your condition.)
- Is there a way to control the radiation level?
- How will the test be used for my treatment? What will be different about my treatment if the test isn’t done?
Don’t let fear or pain make your medical decisions for you. Know the radiation risks of medical imaging tests before you need them, so you can understand if you need them at all.
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