FAQ: Radiation Risk From Medical Imaging
What You Need to Know About Radiation Risks From CT, Other Scans
March 31, 2010 -- In a sometimes contentious two-day meeting, the FDA has
put forward its plan to reduce unnecessary
radiation exposure from CT scans, nuclear medicine studies, and
These medical imaging techniques represent only about a fourth of imaging
tests that expose U.S. patients to radiation, but they expose patients to
nearly 90% of the radiation they get from medical imaging.
And more and more Americans get these tests every year. They're the main
reason why the U.S. population's radiation exposure has almost doubled over the
last 20 years.
An individual's chance of getting cancer from a single scan is small. But
because the scans are so widely used, they cause a considerable amount of harm.
One study estimated that the CT scans performed in 2007 are related to some
29,000 future cancers.
What are these tests? What are their risks? When do the tests' benefits
outweigh their risks? Here are WebMD's answers to these and other
What are CT scans, nuclear medicine studies, and fluoroscopy?
In a normal X-ray, a person gets a blast of radiation that creates an image
on a two-dimensional square of film.
During a computed tomography or
CT scan (sometimes called a CAT scan), a rotating device shoots X-rays
through the body to produce several cross-sectional images. A computer
assembles these images into a 3-D image of the inside of the body. Scans that
take more images -- and expose the patient to more radiation -- yield sharper
During nuclear medicine studies, such as positron emission tomography or PET
scans, the patient is given a small amount of a radioactive substance. A
detector then views an image of this "radiotracer" as it moves through the
During fluoroscopy, a device passes continuous X-rays through the body to
yield a real-time moving image.
How much radiation does a person get from medical imaging studies?
Getting a CT scan gives a patient as much radiation as 100 to 800 chest
Getting a nuclear medicine study exposes a patient to as much radiation as
10 to 2,050 chest X-rays.
Getting a fluoroscopic procedure exposes a patient to as much radiation as
250 to 3,500 chest X-rays.
For perspective, a person gets the equivalent of one chest X-ray from normal
background radiation in about two and a half days. In 2.7 years, people get as
much radiation just from being on the planet as they do from an abdominal CT
What are the benefits of medical imaging procedures?
Medical imaging has vastly reduced the need for exploratory surgery and
greatly improves the efficiency of many kinds of surgical procedures. These
images have revolutionized the diagnosis of many diseases and conditions, have
improved treatment planning, and save lives via image-guided therapies.
Even though the scans are expensive, they can reduce costs by making
hospital stays shorter.