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Last Updated: 12/22/16

Radiation Risk

Sometimes patients get frightened by the word "nuclear". Did you know that the peaceful uses of nuclear material for medical purposes predates World War II? Also, when used to look for disease (diagnosis), X ray tests like a chest X ray or a hand X ray have a very small radiation dose. Your Doctors are concerned about keeping these radiation doses as low as possible. So the risk to you as a patient is similar to driving a few miles or smoking a few cigarettes. For CT scans, PET and Nuclear Medicine exams, the radiation dose is greater and varies depending on the exam. Here, the Doctor orders an exam when it might change your diagnosis or treatment. For example, if you are a smoker and begin to cough up blood, your Doctor might order a chest X ray. If the chest X ray is abnormal, a CT scan might be ordered next. (Certainly better than a trip to the operating room, especially if you only have a small infection, etc). If the CT shows something that could be a tumor or a cancer a PET scan could follow. The radiation dose from these diagnostic exams (looking to find out what is wrong) is similar to living in Denver or a high altitude ski resort for several years.

The Doctors also look at the risk to benefit ratio. If a test has a very small risk (much less than surgery) and has the potential benefit of greatly changing your treatment for the better, the decision to do the test becomes easy.

Some tests, like diagnostic MRI and diagnostic ultrasound do not have any radiation that might hurt you.

The ability of CT, MRI, PET and / or Nuclear Medicine to do an Imaging "exploratory surgery" has made them very popular. Low risk or no risk imaging procedures combined with excellent results has been the key to imaging's success and growth over the past 20 years. Sometimes the only way to tell if a treatment is working (except for a procedure like surgery or a biopsy) is by imaging.

We can also use nuclear materials to treat tumors. The use of radioactive iodine to treat some thyroid diseases also predates the US entry into World War II. It was very successful back then, and we still use it today!

For pregnant women, those with very young children and with kids in general, there many additional safety rules. As Hippocrates said, "Above all, do no harm".

We realize that children can get scared of the big machines and the noises that medical imaging machines make. Most every person in the imaging department where the study is performed is sensitive to this. Sometimes mom or dad will stay in the room while the imaging study is obtained. We also have nice stickers for the kids!!

Keeping the radiation dose low is also supported by several professional societies: