Advantages & Disadvantages of a CAT Scan

close up of a blonde caucasian female patient as her head is strapped into a cat scan machine
A woman receives a CAT Scan. (Image: Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images)

CAT or CT scanning is a highly accurate medical test that combines x-ray with computerized technology. While this painless and noninvasive procedure greatly assists radiologists in diagnosing cardiovascular diseases, musculoskeletal problems, infectious diseases, trauma and certain types of cancer, the CAT scan also carries radiation-induced risks.

Comprehensiveness

The CAT scan can record images of bone, soft tissue and blood vessels simultaneously, offering clear advantages over standard x-rays. The CAT scans’ diagnostic ability can make surgical biopsy or exploratory surgery unnecessary. Its real-time imaging allows CAT scanning to be used to guide needle biopsies and similar procedures. A cardiologist can view clear 3D images of the coronary arteries without having to do an invasive angiography.

Speed

Most partial CAT scans take just seconds, and a full scan of the entire body can be completed in about a half-hour. This speed helps in finding internal injuries and internal bleeding quickly enough to help save lives.

Fewer Restrictions than MRI

CAT scans have a less stringent requirement for patients to remain absolutely motionless during the scan as compared to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). CAT scans, unlike MRI, have no prohibition on implanted medical devices.

Concerns over Radiation

Levels of radiation emitted by CAT scanners vary widely, leading to the possibility of lung cancer or breast cancer as a consequence. X-rays also damage DNA itself. Since the federal government has no regulations limiting how much radiation people may receive during CAT scans, the referring physician decides the strength of the dose.

Unsuitability for Pregnant Women

CAT scans are typically not recommended for pregnant women unless medically necessary because of potential risk to the baby. Women should let their doctor and scan technician know if there is any chance they are pregnant. Additionally, whether pregnant or not, women face a higher risk than men since radiation can damage their ovaries.

Dangers to Children

Nursing babies are potentially at risk from “contrast material” injected into their mothers before CAT scans -- a 24-hour waiting period is recommended before resuming breast-feeding. Children are also highly sensitive to radiation and so CAT scans should not be done on children without absolute need.

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