Computed tomography, more commonly known as a CT or CAT scan, is a diagnostic medical test that, like traditional x-rays, produces multiple images or pictures of the inside of the body. The cross-sectional images generated during a CT scan can be reformatted in multiple planes, and can even generate three-dimensional images. These images can be viewed on a computer monitor, printed on film or transferred to a CD or DVD. CT images of internal organs, bones, soft tissue and blood vessels provide greater detail than traditional x-rays, particularly of soft tissues and blood vessels. Using specialized equipment and expertise to create and interpret CT scans of the body, radiologists can more easily diagnose problems such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, infectious disease, appendicitis, trauma and musculoskeletal disorders.
- one of the fastest and most accurate tools for examining the chest, abdomen and pelvis because it provides detailed, cross-sectional views of all types of tissue.
- used to examine patients with injuries from trauma such as a motor vehicle accident.
- performed on patients with acute symptoms such as chest or abdominal pain or difficulty breathing.
- often the best method for detecting cancers in the chest, abdomen and pelvis, such as lymphoma and cancers of the lung, liver, kidney, ovary and pancreas. It’s considered the best method since the image allows a physician to confirm the presence of a tumor, measure its size, identify its precise location and determine the extent of its involvement with other nearby tissue.
- an examination that plays a significant role in the detection, diagnosis and treatment of vascular diseases that can lead to stroke, kidney failure or even death. CT is commonly used to assess for pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lung vessels) as well as for aortic aneurysms.
- quickly identify injuries to the lungs, heart and vessels, liver, spleen, kidneys, bowel or other internal organs in cases of trauma.
- guide biopsies and other procedures such as abscess drainages and minimally invasive tumor treatments. plan for and assess the results of surgery, such as organ transplants or gastric bypass.
You should wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing to your exam. You may be given a gown to wear during the procedure. Metal objects, including jewelry, eyeglasses, dentures and hairpins, may affect the CT images and should be left at home or removed prior to your exam. You may also be asked to remove hearing aids and removable dental work. Women will be asked to remove bras containing metal underwire. You may be asked to remove any piercings, if possible. You will be asked not to eat or drink anything for a few hours beforehand, if contrast material will be used in your exam. You should inform your physician of all medications you are taking and if you have any allergies. If you have a known allergy to contrast material, or "dye," your doctor may prescribe medications (usually a steroid) to reduce the risk of an allergic reaction. These medications generally need to be taken 12 hours prior to administration of contrast material. To avoid unnecessary delays, contact your doctor before the exact time of your exam. Also inform your doctor of any recent illnesses or other medical conditions and whether you have a history of heart disease, asthma, diabetes, kidney disease or thyroid problems. Any of these conditions may increase the risk of an unusual adverse effect. Women should always inform their physician and the CT technologist if there is any possibility that they may be pregnant. See the Safety page for more information about pregnancy and x-rays.
The CT scanner is typically a large, box-like machine with a hole, or short tunnel, in the center. You will lie on a narrow examination table that slides into and out of this tunnel. Rotating around you, the x-ray tube and electronic x-ray detectors are located opposite each other in a ring, called a gantry. The computer workstation that processes the imaging information is located in a separate control room, where the technologist operates the scanner and monitors your examination in direct visual contact and usually with the ability to hear and talk to you with the use of a speaker and microphone.
In many ways CT scanning works very much like other x-ray examinations. Different body parts absorb the x-rays in varying degrees. It is this crucial difference in absorption that allows the body parts to be distinguished from one another on an x-ray film or CT electronic image. In a conventional x-ray exam, a small amount of radiation is aimed at and passes through the part of the body being examined, recording an image on a special electronic image recording plate. Bones appear white on the x-ray; soft tissue, such as organs like the heart or liver, shows up in shades of gray, and air appears black. With CT scanning, numerous x-ray beams and a set of electronic x-ray detectors rotate around you, measuring the amount of radiation being absorbed throughout your body. Sometimes, the examination table will move during the scan, so that the x-ray beam follows a spiral path. A special computer program processes this large volume of data to create two-dimensional cross-sectional images of your body, which are then displayed on a monitor. CT imaging is sometimes compared to looking into a loaf of bread by cutting the loaf into thin slices. When the image slices are reassembled by computer software, the result is a very detailed multidimensional view of the body's interior. Refinements in detector technology allow nearly all CT scanners to obtain multiple slices in a single rotation. These scanners, called multislice CT or multidetector CT, allow thinner slices to be obtained in a shorter period of time, resulting in more detail and additional view capabilities.
Soft-tissue details in areas such as the brain, internal pelvic organs, and joints (such as knees and shoulders) can often be better evaluated with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In pregnant women, while CT can be performed safely, other imaging exams not involving radiation, such as ultrasound or MRI, are preferred but only if they are likely to be as good as CT in diagnosing your condition. A person who is very large may not fit into the opening of a conventional CT scanner or may be over the weight limit—usually 450 pounds—for the moving table.