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What is Computed Tomography?

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  • Written By: S. Rosier
  • Edited By: Lucy Oppenheimer
  • Last Modified Date: 16 September 2016
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Computed tomography, or a CT scan, is a non-invasive, medical imaging method typically used for diagnostic and treatment procedures. A series of cross sectional x-rays are taken and combined to form a comprehensive, two- or three-dimensional picture of the area being scanned. CT scans are also referred to as computed axial tomography scans, or CAT scans.

Computed tomography is invaluable because it can scan and represent different types of bodily matter, such as bone, soft tissue, and blood vessels. It can also scan different parts of the body separately or it can be used for a total body scan. Usually, a dye is injected into the patient as a contrast material and then he or she is placed in the cylindrical CT scan machine that takes the pictures.

Computed tomography has a wide range of uses in medicine. It can show cancers in different parts of the body, helping doctors measure its spread and apply targeted treatments. Any abnormal growth or structures such as cysts, tumors, abscesses, kidney or bladder stones, can be detected as well. CT scans can also be used to help assess areas of trauma and identify any structural damage. In all cases, computed tomography can provide for a detailed examination of the body to develop the best and most accurate treatment for the patient.

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There are pros and cons to using computed tomography in medical procedures. Computed tomography requires more radiation than traditional x-rays, and the more detailed and complex the CT scan is, the more radiation exposure the patient receives. However, for most patients, the risk of allowing a problem like cancer to continue unchecked is worse than the risks from radiation exposure. Also, the quality of computed tomography is much higher than a traditional x-ray. It allows for fast identification of things like internal bleeding, which a traditional x-ray would not be able to detect. Some other problems with computed tomography are the associated costs, but as technology advances the cost of these procedures decreases.

While computed tomography can provide a lot of important information to a medical team, there are some people for whom it is not suited. The radiation it involves precludes pregnant women and the dye that is injected requires nursing mothers to take precautions. Children should not get them unless it is medically necessary, and even then, repeated exposure should be avoided as much as possible. Some people cannot physically fit in the machines either, so accommodations have to be made to aid these people. Also, some areas being scanned could also be examined on an MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, and thus are not worth the risk of a computed tomography scan.

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