Radiation risk from medical imaging
From Harvard Women’s Health Watch. Updated: April 2, 2018
There’s been a lot in the media about radiation exposure from medical imaging, and many of my patients are asking about it. They want to know if radiation from mammograms, bone density tests, computed tomography (CT) scans, and so forth will increase their risk of developing cancer. For most women, there’s very little risk from routine x-ray imaging such as mammography or dental x-rays. But many experts are concerned about an explosion in the use of higher radiation–dose tests, such as CT and nuclear imaging.
Over 80 million CT scans are performed in the United States each year, compared with just three million in 1980. There are good reasons for this trend. CT scanning and nuclear imaging have revolutionized diagnosis and treatment, almost eliminating the need for once-common exploratory surgeries and many other invasive and potentially risky procedures. The benefits of these tests, when they’re appropriate, far outweigh any radiation-associated cancer risks, and the risk from a single CT scan or nuclear imaging test is quite small. But are we courting future public health problems?
Higher radiation–dose imaging
Most of the increased exposure in the United States is due to CT scanning and nuclear imaging, which require larger radiation doses than traditional x-rays. A chest x-ray, for example, delivers 0.1 mSv, while a chest CT delivers 7 mSv (see the table) — 70 times as much. And that’s not counting the very common follow-up CT scans.
In a 2009 study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, researchers estimated the potential risk of cancer from CT scans in 31,462 patients over 22 years. For the group as a whole, the increase in risk was slight — 0.7% above the overall lifetime risk of cancer in the United States, which is 42%. But for patients who had multiple CT scans, the increase in risk was higher, ranging from 2.7% to 12%. (In this group, 33% had received more than five CT scans; 5%, more than 22 scans; and 1%, more than 38.)
What to do
Unless you were exposed to high doses of radiation during cancer treatment in youth, any increase in your risk for cancer due to medical radiation appears to be slight. But we don’t really know for sure, since the effects of radiation damage typically take many years to appear, and the increase in high-dose imaging has occurred only since 1980.
So until we know more, you will want to keep your exposure to medical radiation as low as possible. You can do that in several ways, including these:
Discuss any high-dose diagnostic imaging with your clinician. If you need a CT or nuclear scan to treat or diagnose a medical condition, the benefits usually outweigh the risks. Still, if your clinician has ordered a CT, it’s reasonable to ask what difference the result will make in how your condition is managed; for example, will it save you an invasive procedure?
Keep track of your x-ray history. It won’t be completely accurate because different machines deliver different amounts of radiation, and because the dose you absorb depends on your size, your weight, and the part of the body targeted by the x-ray. But you and your clinician will get a ballpark estimate of your exposure.
Consider a lower-dose radiation test. If your clinician recommends a CT or nuclear medicine scan, ask if another technique would work, such as a lower-dose x-ray or a test that uses no radiation, such as ultrasound (which uses high-frequency sound waves) or MRI (which relies on magnetic energy). Neither ultrasound nor MRI appears to harm DNA or increase cancer risk.
Consider less-frequent testing. If you’re getting regular CT scans for a chronic condition, ask your clinician if it’s possible to increase the time between scans. And if you feel the CT scans aren’t helping, discuss whether you might take a different approach, such as lower-dose imaging or observation without imaging.
Don’t seek out scans. Don’t ask for a CT scan just because you want to feel assured that you’ve had a “thorough checkup.” CT scans rarely produce important findings in people without relevant symptoms. And there’s a chance the scan will find something incidental, spurring additional CT scans or x-rays that add to your radiation exposure.
How Hospitals and Doctors Put Thousands of Patients At Increased Risk for Cancer.
By Dr. Evan Levine, a member of APRA’s Medical Advisory Board.
In the 1990s a new type of stress test was developed that could be done in just half the time of the usual nuclear stress test, earning more profit for hospitals and doctors. The only problem was that it would result in an exposure of radiation equal to an additional 140 chest x-rays or a lifetime of mammograms, resulting in an increased risk of cancer over the next 20+ years. But the victims were never told.
Listen to the “Real Medicine” Podcast by Dr. Evan Levine