Pics of the Radioactive Kind

Modern Medicine and its advancements have certainly made many diseases almost obsolete or at least easier to diagnosis and to treat.  But, some of its diagnostic tools are not so innocuous as a tongue depressor or stethoscope anymore.  Those pictures the doctors order to get a clearer look at our insides can carry some risks - primarily of the radioactive kind  When we should have those tests and when we should not is a decision for each of us with our health team, but it does help to be informed in order to make the best decision and to at least know some possible ways to counteract some of the risks.

Types of Imaging

Your doctor may order various tests to help diagnosis your health issue.  Many carry little risk, But, several could add to your radiation load.  Here are some of the diagnostic imaging tests that carry radiation:
  • X-rays, including dental and mammograms
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans - a rotating device that shoots multiple  X-rays through the body to produce several cross-sectional images
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scans - a small amount of a radioactive substance is administered to produce images of this tracer as it moves through the body
  • Fluoroscopy - a device that passes continuous X-rays through the body to yield a real-time moving image.
  • Bone scans
  • Contrast studies such as lower and upper gastrointestinal (GI) series, intravenous pyelogram (IVP), angiograms, arteriography, arteriogram, and venography or venogram
The benefits of imaging tests must be weighted against the risks.  Imaging such as those listed above could reduce the need for exploratory surgery or they could improve the treatment plan or even save your life. They play a crucial role in our current medical toolbox.

Radiation Effects

We are exposed to small doses of radiation from natural sources every day.  Thus, it is unlikely that one imaging test will directly cause ill effects, but it is the long term cumulative effects of many exposures over a lifetime that can cause the damage.  So, it is prudent to be mindful of our exposures and to lessen the frequency when possible.

The radiation you get from x-ray, CT, and nuclear imaging is ionizing radiation which can damage DNA. Keep in mind our cells repair most of the damage but maybe not so well sometimes resulting in DNA mutations that may contribute to cancer down the road..

Some of the health risks associated with radiation exposure are as follows:
  • Cancer and other illnesses caused by DNA mutations
  • Burns
  • Hair loss
  • Cataracts
Click over here to see what the EPA says about radiation and its possible effects on our health.

Before You Agree to the Test

If your doctor requests imaging that carries radiation risks, discuss these suggestions with your health practitioner before you agree to testing:
  • Determine with your health care provider if the test results could improve your care.  If the test's outcome won't change the diagnosis or treatment, perhaps it is not worth the radiation and you should opt out.
  • Research other equally good alternatives.  For example, some diagnostic scans. such as MRI or ultrasound, don't emit radiation. 
  • Let your health practitioner know if you've received any imaging at another place or time.  Your doctor may be able to reexamine the results and spare you the hassle of retesting and the rads.

If You Decide to Get the Test

If you make the decision to get a diagnostic test that carries radiation risk, consider taking these steps:
  • Ask for digital x-rays as it uses less radiation than film.  The radiologist can also zoom in on areas of the digital x-ray as to get a better look, which lessens the need for additional shots and more radiation.
  • If a new type of testing is suggested, ask lots of questions about risks and do your own research.  Some of the new imaging, like 3D mammography, carries more radiation than other mammography choices, but the test results offer a more thorough image.
  • Always ask for a thyroid guard and lead apron during dental X-rays.  Some research suggests that repeated exposure may be linked to thyroid cancer if patients aren't properly protected.
  • If you need a CT scan and you weigh less than 180 pounds, your doctor may be able to decrease the radiation dose. Ask them to do so.

Where to Go for the Test

If you are going ahead with the test, make it count!  Get the best. Always get your imaging at the best managed, most up-to-date, and reputable centers in your area.

Lack of standardization is a problem with imaging testing.  Some studies have shown dramatic differences in the doses of radiation given for the same test at various centers. Radiation exposure and equipment performance are crucial.

Start with your doctor's recommendations but do not stop there.  Call the imaging centers and ask questions before scheduling your appointment. Ask them things like this:

  • How often are the machines checked by a qualified medical physicist?  At minimum, an annual equipment examination by a qualified medical physicist should be performed. 
  • Do they have newer machines that carry less radiation?
  • Will a board-certified radiologist interpret my examination?

Check out this link from a radiologist on what particular questions to ask for breast imaging centers.  After all, the more accurate the results, the greater the chance of a successful treatment.

And next post . . . foods and supplements that can help counteract radiation exposure.

photo credit: <a href="">Steven Burke</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>