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How much radiation are you exposed to?

August 26, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
When you're sick, a trip to the doctor can often turn into having to go through a battery of tests. A study from the New England Journal of Medicine took a look at how much radiation people are exposed to when getting X-rays, CT scans and PET scans. Although the tests have given doctors accurate tools to diagnose diseases, could patients be getting too much radiation?

If you get injured, or have any unusual symptoms, doctors often want to see what is going on inside your body.

"It's really ingrained into the system now. Just about every patient who has a disease process is going to get some sort of medical imaging," said Dr. Jason Sinner, Providence St. Joseph Medical Center.

While CT scans, mammograms and certain heart scans allow doctors to better diagnose potentially fatal conditions, these tests also expose patients to low doses of harmful radiation. Radiation has been linked to the development of cancer, so repeated exposure has become a potential concern. Radiologist Jason Sinner says the technology has greatly improved the way doctors practice medicine.

"That type of imaging is going to be critical to either following or diagnosing what that patient has going on," said Dr. Sinner.

In the study featured in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers followed 100,000 adults for three years. Two-thirds of them had undergone medical tests that used radiation. On average the tests exposed patients to twice as much radiation as would be expected if they hadn't undergone the tests.

"Nobody really knows what the means yet. There is no direct correlate between CT and cancer incident," said Dr. Sinner.

Dr. Sinner says because these tests are powerful diagnostic tools, in most cases the information they supply is worth the potential risk of radiation exposure. However, he recommends patients always ask if any medical test is necessary.

"Whether it's a surgery or biopsy or anything ... and determine the risk-benefit ratio," said Dr. Sinner.

If you're wondering exactly how much radiation you're exposed to with an X-ray, Dr. Sinner says one X-ray equals the amount of radiation you'd be exposed to on a plane trip from Los Angeles to New York. One CT scan is equal to about 100 X-rays.

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