A few things you need to know about a CT scan

A computed tomography (CT) scan

Popularly known as a CT Scan, a Computed Tomography, is an x-ray machine that takes detailed pictures of the inside of your body primarily- your brain, head, neck, and belly. More modern CT scan machines allow for 3D imaging.

Doctors use CT scans to identify and diagnose many kinds of problems including problems in your brain and spinal cord, such as bleeding, tumors, or birth defects, Problems inside your belly, such as blocked intestines and tumors or infection in your kidneys, liver, or lungs, Problems in female reproductive organs, such as tumors in the uterus or ovaries, Abnormal blood vessels of your heart or aorta (a large artery connected to your heart), Broken bones, particularly in your hip, back (spine), and pelvis, Torn muscles and ligaments.

As per any medical procedure, it’s important to notify your specialist if you have a pre-existing condition. Pregnancy, Kidney problems, and any allergies should be noted prior to the CT Scan.

Fortunately, the CT Scan doesn’t require much preparation. Sometimes, doctors will give you a liquid (called a contrast agent) through a vein, to swallow, or sometimes inserted in your rear end. The contrast agent makes a certain part of your body show up on the scan more clearly. You may need to hold your breath briefly to ensure that the images aren't blurred and you may hear whirring sounds as the scanner moves to take x-rays from many angles.

How long should a CT scan take?

A CT scan (or CAT scan) typically lasts 15-30 minutes. Plan to be at the imaging center for at least one hour. If you need oral contrast for your scan, arrive an hour early to pick it up and start drinking it.

What happens during the CT scan?

You will lie down on a bed, which slides into a short imaging tube. If you need intravenous contrast, the technologist will administer it a few seconds before the scan begins. You may need to hold your breath for ten to fifteen seconds during your scan.

Is a CT scan safe?

A CT scan (or CAT scan) is a low-risk test. The major safety issues are the small amount of radiation and the risk of kidney dysfunction associated with intravenous contrast.

The radiation associated with x-rays can damage DNA and increase the risk of cancer. Each CT scan raises your lifetime risk of cancer by approximately 0.05%. The risk is greatest among younger people. As a result, CT scans are generally avoided in those under age 20-30, and used with caution in those aged 30 to 50.

In most cases, however, the immediate diagnostic benefits of a CT scan outweigh the theoretical long-term cancer risk.

Can I have a CT scan if I have a pacemaker or other implanted device?

Yes. Unlike with MRI, there is no risk associated with metal implants.

Do I need to do anything to prepare for my CT Scan?

Usually, no specific preparation is required before a CT scan (or CAT scan), but you should call the imaging center to confirm.

If you need iodinated contrast and take metformin for diabetes, doctors usually recommend holding your dose for two or three days, starting the morning of your scan. (There is a small risk of a serious complication, known as lactic acidosis, in people who take metformin and experience contrast-related kidney dysfunction.)

If you need oral contrast, you should drink it one to two hours before your test.

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