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The Truth About Whole-Body Scans

On-demand body scans are a hot trend, but are they more harmful than helpful? WebMD investigates.
By
WebMD the Magazine - Feature

Take a drive around certain neighborhoods in Los Angeles and you may spot as many signs advertising body scans as burger joints. Or maybe you've seen the ads on TV or the Internet: "Protect your health! Get a body scan now!" Body scans may be a hot trend in preventive health, but are they lifesavers? Or are they a waste of time and money that may cause unnecessary worry -- or, worse, damage your health?

While technologies vary, the vast majority of these high-tech checkups use computed tomography (CT) scans to examine your entire body or specific parts, such as the heart and lungs, promising to catch dangerous diseases in earlier, more curable stages.

During the 15- or 20-minute scan, you lie inside a doughnut-shaped machine as an imaging device rotates around you, transmitting radiation. The technique combines multiple X-ray images and with the aid of a computer produces cross-sectional views of your body. By examining the views, a doctor can look for early signs of abnormalities.

The scans aren't cheap -- they run anywhere from $250 to $750 per scan and usually aren't reimbursed by insurance. And the question of how helpful these scans really are is a matter of hot debate among medical experts.

Advocates promote scans as a smart part of a routine physical exam. But if you're healthy, with no worrisome symptoms, a scan is usually not warranted, says Arl Van Moore, MD, a radiologist and clinical assistant professor of radiology at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C., who is also a spokesman for the American College of Radiology.

According to the college's official position, insufficient evidence exists to recommend scans for those with no symptoms or family history suggesting disease. But Van Moore sees a possible exception. "There may be a benefit to people at high risk of lung cancers, such as current smokers or those with a long history of smoking," he says. For healthy people, the scans may cause undue worry -- for instance, by finding a lesion that turns out to be benign. Plus, the amount of radiation exposure, especially with frequent scans, is another concern. If scans are done too often, the radiation exposure may actually increase the number of cancer cases over the long term, according to a 2004 report in the journal Radiology.

Who Needs a High-Tech Checkup?

Before scheduling a body scan, talk to your doctor about your overall health risks and how a scan may or may not help you. In particular, ask yourself:

  • What's your history? Do you have a personal or family history of lung disease, heart disease, or specific cancers?
  • Did you inhale? Are you a longtime smoker?
  • If so, how long? Even if you've quit smoking, for how many years were you an active smoker?

Originally published in the September/October 2007 issue of WebMD the Magazine.

Reviewed on July 30, 2007

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