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How Much Radiation Risk From Medical Imaging?

According to Consumer Reports, there are over 80 million CT scans performed in the United States compared to only 3 million in 1980

The use of medical imaging exams has increased significantly, revolutionizing the way healthcare providers diagnose and treat patients. These exams help determine the need for exploratory surgery options or any invasive procedures.

Patients and medical practitioners may be concerned about radiation exposure after using medical imaging exams like CT scans and MRIs. They want to know if these exams will increase the risk of developing cancer. Fortunately, the benefits of using these imaging exams can outweigh the risk of radiation, but it’s important to be informed regardless. Here’s Med-Pro’s guide to measuring radiation from medical imaging.

Related: Main Hazards in Clinical Radiology

What Kind of Radiation Are From Medical Imaging Exams?

As the years go by, the proportion of radiation exposure from medical sources has increased from 15% in 1980 to 50% today. According to the National Council on Radiation Protection, CT scans alone made up to 24% of total radiation exposure in the United States in March 2009.

CT scans, x-rays, and other nuclear imaging exams use ionizing radiation, which means particles from a high energy wavelength that can penetrate the tissue. The particles send radiation beams as data to reveal the body structure and internal organs. Unfortunately, ionizing radiation can destroy DNA structure. Cells can repair the damage, but sometimes these repairs are not done correctly. This may lead to DNA mutation, which in turn has the possibility of causing cancer later on down the road.

Keep in mind that human beings are exposed to a small dosage of ionizing radiation from everyday life. These are mainly from the sun, soil, water, building material, or rocks. However, these exposures are so minute that they do not affect anyone’s health.

Contact Med-Pro to learn how our radiation badges help keep track of radiation risk from a CT scan.

How to Measure Radiation?

Xray of a broken arm

The proper way to measure the impact of radiation on human health is through Sievert (Sv) or millisieverts (mSv). These units are commonly used to compare imaging exams and to take into account the biological impact, which varies depending on the vulnerability of the body tissue and the type of radiation.

In order to measure Sv or mSv, you can use Med-Pro’s radiation dosimeters. With competitive prices and online results, reading your radiation intake will be easier than ever.

Related: How Can You Detect Radiation

How Does Ionizing Radiation Correlates With Cancer Risk?

Microscopic view of a cancer cell

Teens and children receiving a high dosage of radiation are often in treatment for lymphoma or other types of cancer. However, there are no clinical trials to pinpoint the risk of cancer that results from medical radiation.

Most of the knowledge we have today about ionizing radiation originates from studying the survivors of the 1945 atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The study showed that there is a significant increase in cancer in those exposed to the atomic bomb blast. Unfortunately, this is not the perfect research to use to approximate the risk of medical radiation treatments, mainly because the atomic blast releases radiation all at once, while the medical images release a small dosage that is spread over a long period.

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How Much Radiation Dose is in Each Imaging test?

  • X-ray of the arms or leg is .001 mSv
  • X-ray of the chest is .1 mSv
  • X-ray of the dental region is .0 1mSv
  • X-ray of the abdomen is .7 mSv
  • Bone density test is .001 mSv
  • X-ray of the lumbar spine is 1.5 mSv
  • A mammogram is .4 mSv
  • CT of the Cardiac region is 3 mSv
  • CT of the head is 2 mSv
  • CT of the spine is 6 mSv
  • Nuclear imaging and bone scan at 6.3 mSv
  • CT of the chest is 7 mSv
  • CT of the pelvis is 6 mSv
  • CT and colonoscopy are 10 mSv 
  • CT of the abdomen is 8 mSv
  • CT angiogram is 16 mSv 
  • Nuclear imaging cardiac stress test is 40.7 mSv

Which Imaging Test Has a Higher Radiation Dose?

According to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who have  studied 31000 patients over 22 years, and have estimated that the risk of cancer from CT scan can increase over the years. However, the group as a whole would have an increase in rates that is .7% above the overall lifetime, which is 42%. However, patients with multiple CT scans will have a higher risk of developing cancer, which can range between 2.7% to 12%.

This research indicates that most of the radiation exposure in the United States is due to nuclear imaging exams and CT scans, which have a higher radiation exposure than a traditional x-ray. For example, chest x-ray delivers about .1 mSv, while chest CT scans can expose patients to up to 7 mSv, which is 70 times more than the chest x-ray.

Related: How does a radiation detection service work?

Weighing The Benefits of CT Scan and Risk of Exposure

CT scans play a significant role in providing a higher resolution three-dimensional image of the organs. It offers more anatomically specific information to help healthcare providers diagnose the patient.

Unfortunately, CT scans emit a lot of radiation exposure, which may cause DNA and cellular damage for medical imaging operators. Because of this problem, it is important for these medical professionals to limit their exposure and take precautions while conducting the exams.

Medical guidelines have been created to help doctors know when to use the CT scan, and when to use alternative diagnostic tests. For example, if the patient has a right lower quadrant pain, fever, and elevated white blood cell count, then there’s an 80% chance that this is appendicitis. However, going into surgery without a CT scan is a risk because of the 20% chance that the patient does not have appendicitis.

Luckily, the CT scan offers doctors a clear overall picture of the organ system, so they know that it’s practically 100% appendicitis if they see an inflamed appendix. However, the CT scan can eliminate appendicitis as a diagnosis by showing other potential etiology, such as obstruction, scar tissues, or tumors. In this case, the benefits of a CT scan outweighs the risk of radiation exposure.

However, in the case of a pregnant woman with appendicitis or kidney stones, it’s best not to use a CT scan. This is mainly because a small amount of radiation exposure can be detrimental to the development of the fetus. Luckily, there are alternative imaging exams such as an ultrasound, which carries less risk than a CT scan.

Learn about assessing radiation risks with Med-Pro radiation badges.

What Can Medical Professionals Do Regarding Imaging Exams and Radiation Exposure? 

a man in a suit and a doctor smiling

Since the effects of medical radiation take many years to appear, it’s best to keep the exposure as minimal as possible. Here are some tips and tricks that medical professionals can do in regards to imaging exams and radiation exposure.

Wearing a Radiation Badge

Health care providers can wear a radiation badge or dosimeter on their white coat or scrubs that will indicate how much radiation that they are exposed to. For example, Med-Pro offers quality and accurate radiation badges for healthcare professionals at an affordable price. Not only that, the badge will alert the doctor if they are being overexposed, which will require that they stop working with the devices, substances, or imaging exams that have high amounts of radiation. 

Asking The Right Questions

If the patient needs a nuclear scan or CT to diagnose or treat a medical condition, then it’s evident that the benefits outweigh the risks. However, it’s still a good idea for doctors to consider if ordering a CT scan will prevent an invasive procedure. If not, then why order one?

Keep Track of Everything 

Every time a patient undergoes an x-ray or CT scan, it’s essential to keep track of the type of imaging exam and when it was initiated. That way, the doctor can avoid repeating multiple exams, which can be a waste of time and dangerous to both the patient and the healthcare provider.

Low Dosage Test

If a diagnosis requires a nuclear exam and CT scan, it’s advisable to also check out other imaging exams such as an x-ray that could provide an accurate diagnosis. If an alternative exam can be equally as precise and beneficial, definitely consider it to avoid high exposure to radiation.

Less Frequent Testing

If the patient is getting a regular CT scan for a chronic illness, it’s essential to increase the time between the scans. If the patient feels that the scans aren’t helping, then finding an alternative solution that can also reduce the exposure to radiation would be optimal.

Don’t Seek Out Scans.

One of the mistakes that patients make is asking for a CT scan to feel reassured. CT scans rarely produce essential findings in patients without relevant symptoms. For example, if the patient has a burning sensation in the genital region along with frequent and irregular urination, then that’s a sign of a UTI that only requires a urinalysis and urine culture to pinpoint the infection and not a CT scan. 

Related: Dosimeter Badge: Why Is It Important?


When it comes to using medical imaging, it’s vital to weigh the benefits and risks in order to prepare properly. Healthcare professionals must be aware of this and take the appropriate action to protect their employees. This may entail providing lead aprons or reducing the exposure by increasing the timeframe between one CT scan and another or to use an alternative imaging exam with less exposure.

Fortunately, Med-Pro offers radiation badges or dosimeters that healthcare providers can wear daily to detect the amount of radiation that they are exposed to. Once the workers get above a certain threshold, the radiation badge will alert them so they can avoid working in a particular area.

With the right precaution and knowledge, it is possible to avoid high exposure to prevent the potential risk of cancer.

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