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Dr. Aaron Sodickson
CT scanning and nuclear imaging have revolutionized diagnosis and treatment, almost eliminating the need for once-common exploratory surgeries and other invasive, potentially risky procedures
Harvard Health Letters
There's been a lot in the media lately about radiation exposure from medical imaging. Patients are asking about it. They want to know if radiation from mammograms, bone density tests, computed tomography (CT) scans, and so forth will increase their risk of developing cancer.
For most people, there's very little risk from routine x-ray imaging, such as mammography or dental x-rays. But many experts are concerned about an explosion in the use of higher radiation-dose tests, such as CT and nuclear imaging.
In 2006, about 62 million CT scans were performed in the United States, compared with just three million in 1980. There are good reasons for this trend. CT scanning and nuclear imaging have revolutionized diagnosis and treatment, almost eliminating the need for once-common exploratory surgeries and many other invasive and potentially risky procedures. The benefits of these tests, when they're appropriate, far outweigh any radiation-associated cancer risks, and the risk from a single CT scan or nuclear imaging test is quite small. However, in light of the 20-fold increase in the use of these tests, experts wonder if we are courting future public health problems.
Some of this worry was fueled by the
EXPOSURE TO IONIZING RADIATION ON THE RISE
The radiation you get from x-ray, CT, and nuclear imaging is ionizing radiation -- high-energy wavelengths or particles that penetrate tissue to reveal the body's internal organs and structures. Ionizing radiation can damage DNA, and although your cells repair most of the damage, they sometimes do the job imperfectly, leaving small areas of "misrepair." The result is DNA mutations that may contribute to cancer years down the road.
We're exposed to small doses of ionizing radiation from natural sources all the time -- in particular, cosmic radiation, mainly from the sun, and radon, a radioactive gas that comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock, water, and building materials. How much of this so-called background radiation you're exposed to depends on many factors, including altitude and home ventilation. But the average is 3 millisieverts (mSv) per year. (A millisievert is a measure of radiation exposure.)
Exposure to ionizing radiation from natural or background sources hasn't changed since about 1980, but Americans' total per capita radiation exposure has nearly doubled, and experts believe the main reason is increased use of medical imaging. The proportion of total radiation exposure that comes from medical sources has grown from 15 percent in the early 1980s to 50 percent today. CT alone accounts for 24 percent of all radiation exposure in the U.S., according to a report issued in
If you mention the measurement of radiation, many people will recall the classic Geiger counter with its crescendo of clicks. But Geiger counters detect only the intensity of radioactive emissions. Measuring their impact on human tissues and health is more difficult. That's where the sievert (Sv) and millisievert (mSv) come in.
These units, the ones most commonly used in comparing imaging procedures, take into account the biological effect of radiation, which varies with the type of radiation and the vulnerability of the affected body tissue. Taking these into account, millisieverts describe what's called the "equivalent dose."
IONIZING RADIATION AND CANCER RISK
We've long known that children and teens who receive high doses of radiation to treat lymphoma or other cancers are more likely to develop additional cancers later in life. But we have no clinical trials to guide our thinking about cancer risk from medical radiation in healthy adults. Most of what we know about the risks of ionizing radiation comes from long-term studies of people who survived the 1945 atomic bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
These studies show a slightly but significantly increased risk of cancer in those exposed to the blasts, including a group of 25,000 Hiroshima survivors who received less than 50 mSv of radiation -- an amount you might get from two or three CT scans.
The atomic blast isn't a perfect model for exposure to medical radiation, because the bomb released its radiation all at once, while the doses from medical imaging are smaller and spread over time. Still, most experts believe that can be almost as harmful as getting an equivalent dose all at once.
HIGHER RADIATION-DOSE IMAGING
Most of the increased exposure in the U.S. is due to CT scanning and nuclear imaging, which require larger radiation doses than traditional x-rays. A chest x-ray, for example, delivers 0.1 mSv, while a chest CT delivers 7 mSv -- 70 times as much. And that's not counting the very common follow-up CT scans.
In a 2009 study from Brigham and
WHAT TO DO
Unless you were exposed to high doses of radiation during cancer treatment in youth, any increase in your risk for cancer due to medical radiation appears slight. But we don't really know for sure, since the effects of radiation damage typically take many years to appear, and the increase in high-dose imaging has occurred only since 1980.
So until we know more, you will want to keep your exposure to medical radiation as low as possible. You can do that in several ways, including:
Discuss any high-dose diagnostic imaging with your clinician.
If you need a CT or nuclear scan to treat or diagnose a medical condition, the benefits usually outweigh the risks. Still, if your clinician has ordered a CT, it's reasonable to ask what difference the result will make in how your condition is managed; for example, will it save you an invasive procedure?
Keep track of your radiation exposure.
The President's Panel recommended that imaging device makers indicate the radiation dose for each x-ray, and that clinicians record radiation exposures in patients' medical records.
Consider a lower-dose radiation test.
If your clinician recommends a CT or nuclear medicine scan, ask if another technique would work, such as a lower-dose x-ray or a test that uses no radiation, such as ultrasound (which uses high-frequency sound waves) or MRI (which relies on magnetic energy). Neither ultrasound nor MRI appears to harm DNA or increase cancer risk.
Consider less-frequent testing.
If you're getting regular CT scans for a chronic condition, ask your clinician if it's possible to increase the time between scans. And if you feel the CT scans aren't helping, discuss whether you might take a different approach, such as lower-dose imaging or observation without imaging.
Don't seek out scans.
Don't ask for a CT scan just because you want to feel assured that you've had a "thorough checkup." CT scans rarely produce important findings in people without relevant symptoms. And there's a chance the scan will find something incidental, spurring additional CT scans or x-rays that add to your radiation exposure.
Dr. Aaron Sodickson helped in the preparation of this article. Dr. Sodickson is a diagnostic radiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts
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Health - A Doctor Talks About Radiation Risk From Medical Imaging