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About Diagnostic Imaging and Radiation

Imaging tests, such as X-rays and scans, can be extremely valuable in the diagnosis of illness and disease. Radiation therapy can even save lives; however, as with all medical procedures, it is important to understand the benefits and risks associated with diagnostic imaging and other uses of radiation.

Benefits of Diagnostic Imaging and Other Procedures

Diagnostic imaging and other procedures, some involving radiation, have many benefits. Doctors can quickly identify the source of an issue as well as its severity. They can use imaging to guide them during surgery. They can monitor conditions over time. Images themselves can be used to educate patients on their conditions and how to take care of themselves. And many procedures can save lives.

Risks of Diagnostic Imaging

The primary risks associated with diagnostic imaging and other procedures are adverse effects of radiation exposure, which may increase false-positive results and the risk of developing cancer. False-positive results can lead to frightening, costly, unnecessary and inconvenient next steps, so you should always get a second opinion. Regarding radiation, in most cases the exposure is generally so small that the risk is far outweighed by the benefits, and as you can see below, some diagnostic imaging procedures do not use radiation. 

Diagnostic Imaging Tests That Don’t Use Radiation

Diagnostic Imaging Tests That Use Radiation

How Can You Minimize Your Risk?

To help ensure appropriate use of diagnostic imaging, and to minimize your risk, you should:

  • Have an open discussion with your physician. Find out about the risks and benefits associated with the recommended diagnostic imaging procedure. Be sure your doctor knows your diagnostic imaging history (what other scans you have had and when you had them), so they can develop the most appropriate plan for you.
  • Understand the purpose of the procedure. It is important for you to know why the diagnostic test is being recommended for you. For example, examinations “just to see how things are going” are rarely necessary and run the risk of false-positive interpretation.
  • Select a top-quality imaging facility. Another way to help minimize your risk is to have your imaging procedure at an accredited imaging facility.

The bottom line is that X-rays, CT scans and PET scans involve some potential risk of radiation exposure. At the same time, these imaging tests can be a valuable diagnostic tool for physicians, and the risk is often outweighed by the medical benefit when used appropriately.

You should feel comfortable asking questions and having a discussion with your physician about the risks and benefits of imaging procedures. Remember to track your tests and exposure to radiation, and share your history with your physician. This record of previous tests can be valuable for understanding your medical history and for managing your radiation risk.

Click here for a list of questions to ask your doctor before any imaging procedure.

Click here to download a list of questions to ask your doctor before a heart test.