Radiation in Healthcare: Imaging Procedures
Although high doses of ionizing radiation can be harmful to human health, radiation and radioactive materials are used every day in medical settings to improve health outcomes and even save lives.
About Imaging Procedures
Radiation is used in many medical imaging procedures. Medical imaging procedures deliver x-ray beams, a form of ionizing radiation, to a specific part of the body creating a digital image or film that shows the structures inside that area like bones, tissues, and organs. Healthcare providers can use these images for diagnostics, finding out what is causing your health problem, or sometimes to guide treatment. Imaging procedures are usually performed in radiology or imaging centers in hospitals or clinics by a radiologist, a medical professional who is trained and certified to conduct imaging studies with radiation. Medical radiation practices and equipment are regulatedexternal icon by state and federal programs to ensure safety.
Benefits and Risks
There are possible short-term and long-term risks from the very low doses of radiation exposure from imaging procedures. Ionizing radiation can damage cell DNA, but in the low amounts used in each imaging procedure cells can normally repair themselves. When cells get too much radiation over time, this damage can lead to cancer.
Although we all are exposed to ionizing radiation every day, any added exposures, including from imaging procedures, slightly increases the risk of developing cancer later in life.
Usually, the benefits of diagnosing or treating health problems with ionizing radiation will outweigh these risks. These procedures only deliver radiation to the area that needs imaging, protecting all other parts of the body, and should always use the lowest amount of radiation needed to create a good quality image (referred to as “as low as reasonably achievable” – ALARA).
Talk to your healthcare provider and radiologist about the specific benefits and risks of the procedure recommended for your specific situation. These are some of the general benefits and risks for imaging that uses radiation:
- Gives healthcare providers a better view of organs, blood vessels, tissues, and bones.
- Provides detailed information to help decide whether surgery is a good treatment option.
- Can be used to guide medical procedures to place catheters, stents, or other devices inside the body (fluoroscopy, a type of imaging).
- Each procedure contributes to a slight increase in the likelihood that you could develop cancer later in life.
- Fluoroscopy for guiding surgery uses higher doses of radiation than other imaging procedures and may cause skin reddening and hair loss.
- Some imaging procedures require you to drink or receive an intravenous (IV) contrast dye. This non-radioactive dye helps the radiologist see specific organs or parts of the body. Some people can have an allergic reaction to the dye.
How to Limit Your Exposure
The best way to make sure you are not getting more exposure to radiation than necessary from imaging studies is to keep track of imaging procedures and make sure each healthcare provider or specialist you see receives your results. This includes sending previous imaging results to any new healthcare provider before your visit.
It is important to tell your healthcare provider and the radiologist if you are pregnant or think you could be pregnant.
To help reduce your exposure and to help decide what type of imaging or testing is best for you, consider asking your health care provider:
- Do any of my recent tests provide the imaging needed?
- Are there other tests that do not use radiation that can provide the needed information?
For your procedure, the radiologist will use the lowest amount of radiation needed and these doses are further reduced for children. During the procedure you will often receive a lead protective shield to prevent other areas of your body that don’t need imaging from being exposed to radiation.
Other medical radiation experts include the following:
- Hospital radiation safety officer
- Medical physicist
- Radiation physicist
- Diagnostic medical physicist
Imaging Procedures That Don’t Use Radiation
Some alternative imaging procedures that do not use ionizing radiation include Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and ultrasound.
MRI proceduresexternal icon use magnetic fields and radio waves to produce images of specific parts of the body. Ultrasound imaging uses high-frequency sound waves to see inside the body.
You and your healthcare provider will select the best type of imaging procedure for your situation and make sure the potential benefits to your health outweigh possible risks from the procedure.
- Medical X-ray Imagingexternal icon
- Pediatric X-ray Imagingexternal icon
- X-Rays, Pregnancy and Youexternal icon
- What Parents should Know about Medical Radiation Safety pdf icon[PDF – 431 KB]external icon
- Educational Materialsexternal icon
- Get the Facts about Medical Imaging pdf icon[PDF – 644kb]external icon
- My Medical Imaging History pdf icon[PDF – 943kb]external icon