Radiation seems to be everywhere. With recent radiation concerns stemming from something as simple as holding your cell phone too close to your ear, you understandably could be cautious about how the radiation from an upcoming CT scan may affect you.

According to the National Council on Radiation Protection, radiation from medical imaging now accounts for nearly half of the radiation exposure to the US population. The average amount of radiation per person through medical imaging has nearly doubled in the past 30 years. The benefits of securing a detailed and accurate diagnosis of a potentially life-threatening disease or injury, however, greatly outweigh any potential small risk of harm from the radiation used during the study.

Upon receiving a prescription for getting a CT scan you should look for a facility accredited by the American College of Radiology (ACR). The ACR is the gold standard and is designed to demonstrate a facility's strong commitment to image quality and safety. The physicians and technologists performing these imaging studies are well trained to use the minimum amount of radiation necessary for the procedure. Federal regulations have also been set forth to limit the amount of radiation used for each study.

There are many diagnostic imaging studies that require the use of radiation. An X-ray passes -- yup, you guessed it -- through the body to form an image that will then be viewed, and read, by a radiologist. The organs and bones in the body absorb the rays differently (for example, bones absorb more radiation than soft tissue).

Ionizing radiation (X-rays) is used to find accurate diagnosis of disease and/or injury in a number of ways. General X-rays can locate orthopedic damage, such as fractures and dislocations, pneumonia and foreign objects within the body, among other things. Mammograms provide detailed images of the internal structures of breasts. CT or CAT scans produce cross-sectional images by passing X-rays through the body at different angles. Fluoroscopy uses X-rays to dynamically (in real time) visualize the interior of body during some procedures. The most highly concentrated form of radiation is found in radiation therapy, where it is used to eradicate cancer from the body.

Other studies, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and ultrasound, are radiation-free.

While the risk of overexposure to radiation through imaging studies is very small, here are some tips to help you reduce your risk:

  • Keep a medical imaging history form with details such as the exam type, date received, location and referring physician.
  • Share your history with your healthcare providers.
  • Ask your physician if there is another alternative to a study that requires radiation that will still allow appropriate diagnostic information.
  • Provide recent X-ray films to any new providers.

ALWAYS inform your physician or technologist when you are pregnant or think that you may be pregnant. If you have any concerns about the radiation received from a prescribed study, please feel free to discuss them with your physician or technologist before the procedure.

For more information about radiation emitted by radiology imaging studies, visit:

-- Julie Funk, MS, RD, CDE, LDE

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