The average amount of radiation that Americans have been exposed to has doubled in the past 30 years. A large contributing factor to this increase in radiation exposure has come from medical imaging procedures like CT scans, which have increased sixfold in the past 3 decades.
In 1980, fewer than 3 million CT scans were performed in the US. Today, the annual number of CT scans is approximately 80 million, and this number increases each year. With the number of CT scans increasing each year, so is the exposure to radiation, since each CT scan imparts a dose of radiation equivalent to 100-500 chest X-rays.
When used appropriately, CT scans can help physicians reach an accurate medical diagnosis. However, mounting evidence shows that the technology is being overused and sometimes even abused. A 2010 Journal of the American Medical Association article stated that 20-40% of CT scans could be avoided if the ordering physician more closely followed the clinical guidelines governing their use.
The responsibility falls on both the health professional and the consumer in order to understand the risks of exposure, make wise decisions, and to take whatever action they can to minimize the risk of overexposure. In order to protect yourself and make sure that a CT scan is warranted, here are 3 questions to make sure you ask when a doctor recommends a CT scan:
1. Is the CT scan absolutely necessary? 2. How will the results affect my diagnosis &/or treatment? 3. Would a non-radiation-emitting procedure (such as MRI or Ultrasound) be a suitable alternative? Below is a chart that shows the relative radiation exposure of different CT scans and X-rays. For each procedure, there is a comparison to the amount of radiation exposure from natural sources (ex: a bone density exam is equivalent to 3 hours of radiation exposure from natural sources).