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Need an X-Ray? 3 Things You Need to Know About Diagnostic Medical Imaging

Little girl getting an x-ray, diagnostic medical imaging

Doctors have been using diagnostic medical imaging for decades. The technology has improved significantly in recent years, making the tests more accurate and safer than ever before. Yet thanks to some common myths and misconceptions, some people still shy away from getting scanned. 

Diagnostic medical physicist Allen Goode, MS, DABR, sets the record straight on X-rays and other common imaging tests below.

Myths vs. Facts: Diagnostic Medical Imaging

Myth: Diagnostic medical imaging exposes you to harmful radiation levels, which can cause other health issues.

Fact: “The equipment used today is so sensitive that we have the ability to use very small amounts of radiation to get diagnostic information we need,” says Goode. “If we need to do one or two images of a possible broken wrist, the risk of exposure for the patient is essentially zero.”

The risk is so low that hospitals worldwide, including UVA Health, are discontinuing the use of lead aprons to shield the body during X-rays. “Given the information we currently have and the outcomes we’ve seen from current imaging practices, it’s clear that shielding is no longer necessary and, in fact, can cause more harm,” says Goode.

Shields can sometimes obscure the part of the body a doctor needs to see to make a diagnosis. As a result, more scans are necessary, which means more radiation exposure to the patient. 

Discontinuing the use of lead aprons is a change in process, but it’s also a shift in thinking. If you have questions or concerns about this change, talk to the imaging technologist administering your scan or your doctor. 

There is very little risk associated with diagnostic imaging. Yet providers still don’t order scans without carefully considering whether they are absolutely necessary. “Doctors continually weigh the benefit versus the risk involved for every diagnostic imaging procedure,” says Goode. “Most often, the advantages of getting an accurate diagnosis or insight into what’s going on inside the body far outweigh the potential risk of limited radiation exposure.” 

Myth: Pregnant women should not undergo diagnostic medical imaging.

Fact: Because of the low levels of radiation currently being used for medical imaging, there is no increased risk for pregnant women. Studies have shown that these scans have no measurable effect on the unborn child. 

“There is no one that we would rule out from receiving an imaging procedure, including pregnant women,” says Goode. 

Myth: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) use higher amounts of radiation.

Fact: MRI uses powerful magnets – not radiation – to obtain an image of soft structures within the body. This includes the muscles, ligaments, brain and spine. 

CT, on the other hand, does use ionizing radiation. This test requires multiple X-rays taken at different angles to create three-dimensional images. As a result, exposure to radiation is higher than with other tests.

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However, as with all diagnostic medical imaging, doctors thoughtfully weigh the risks versus the benefits for each patient. “For example, for a patient who has cancer, having multiple CT scans is not uncommon,” says Goode. “We know the risks of radiation exposure from multiple CT scans are not as great as our need to see how that cancer is progressing.”  

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