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Radiation in Medical Testing

We are always exposed to low levels of radiation, and for the most part it does not adversely affect us. Radiation comes from the ground in the form of radon and from the sun in the form of ultra violet rays. We know to test for radon in our houses and to wear sunscreen but what about getting medical tests that use radiation to diagnose?

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Radiation is being used more and more in x-ray, CT and nuclear imaging. It is decreasing the amount of “exploratory surgeries” and making diagnosis faster and more accurate. The radiation you get from these tests 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, causing mutations that may contribute to cancer years down the road. This is why very often people who were treated with radiation in the past may end up with different cancers in the future.

CT alone accounts for 24% of all radiation exposure in the United States, according to a report issued in March 2009 by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. Radiation is measured in (mSv). A chest x-ray, for example, delivers 0.1 mSv, while a chest CT delivers 7 mSv (70 times as much).

Though there are new machines coming out constantly that decrease the amount of radiation used, we still need to be more careful about the amount of radiation we allow our bodies to absorb. There are several things you can do as a patient to avoid excess radiation and problems down the road:

  1. Keep track of the x-rays/ CT’s you have had and discuss the actual need for another with your physician.
  2. Don’t ask for an x-ray or CT just to “complete your physical”. Yes, it happens!
  3. See if a test not using radiation such as ultrasound or MRI can be used instead.
  4. When having a mammogram or dental x-rays, ask for the neck guard. It is often not offered, and some are blaming the increase in thyroid cancer on these tests.
  5. If you work around x-rays make sure you are covered with a lead gown and that there are no cracks in it. Also have monthly measurements taken of radiation exposure.

If the side effects of testing are less worrisome than the actual problem and can prevent unnecessary surgery, then go for it. Just don’t forget to keep track of your testing and take proper precautions.

Last modified: December 11, 2020

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