X-Rays Don't Up Kids' Cancer Risk

From the WebMD Archives

April 11, 2000 (Baltimore) -- Children who are exposed to multiple X-rays as part of the management of certain bone problems do not have an increased risk of developing cancer or genetic defects, a study in the current issue of the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics reports.

Bone conditions that require frequent X-rays during childhood include scoliosis, which is an abnormal spine curvature, and abnormal hip development (hip dysplasia). Children may also need frequent X-rays if their legs are different lengths, a condition called leg-length discrepancy.

"My findings should be used to help alleviate the fears many patients have regarding X-rays," says Craig M. Bone, MD, MPH, a fellow in adult reconstructive surgery at the University of California, San Diego, and the study's lead author, in an interview with WebMD. "I have many patients who are worried that having several X-rays taken during a course of treatment will mean they are at high risk of cancer. Our findings suggest otherwise." However, he says physicians should only order essential X-rays.

Bone and his colleague Gordon H. Hsieh, MD, studied more than 200 children treated for scoliosis, hip dysplasia, or leg-length discrepancy at the Shriner's Hospital for Children in Spokane, Wash., over a 13-year period. The complete medical records of the children were reviewed and their total radiation exposure calculated. From this data, researchers were able to calculate the risk of developing blood cancer or leukemia, breast cancer, or a future genetic defect they might pass on to their own children.

Based on their calculations, the increased risk of cancer or genetic defects in these patients was minimal, according to Bone. "Obviously, caution [still] needs to be exercised when determining the frequency and number of [tests that use radiation] for individual patients."

Donald P. Frush, associate professor of radiology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., tells WebMD that most pediatric radiologists are very aware and concerned about the safety of X-rays in children. They use the minimum amount of radiation necessary.

But he adds that many new types of tests have not been adjusted for children. For example, Frush says CT scans use a larger amount of radiation than X-rays, and CT scans are used more frequently in children. Safe levels of CT scan radiation for children should be determined, he says.

Eric Hall, DPhil, professor of radiation physics and director of the center for radiological research at Columbia University in New York, agrees that the effects of radiation in children need to be more accurately determined. He tells WebMD that many studies have shown that children are five to seven times more sensitive to radiation than adults are.

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