Medical technology has advanced tremendously in the last century, but one of the most impactful changes has been the ability to see and understand the inside of the body without making incisions. Diagnostic imaging allows for earlier diagnosis of conditions and exploration of medical mysteries. A range of tests can be used, depending on the part of the body and the type of information needed. Whether you are being monitored for something like cancer or trying to understand the root cause of your headaches and migraines, it can be helpful to understand what these tests mean and why your doctor has chosen a certain type.
What Is Diagnostic Imaging?
Diagnostic imaging refers to a variety of techniques that allow a professional to view the inside of the body, in order to figure out the cause of a condition, confirm a diagnosis, or monitor how a patient responds to treatment. Each type differs in the information it produces, as different tests can produce images of different structures and activities within the body. Based on your symptoms and the part of the body, your doctor will determine which type of imaging is best.
One benefit of imaging tests is that they are typically non-invasive, painless, and do not involve medication. Some may involve lying still for a long time, a contrast dye, or minor radiation exposure, while some involve a small camera inserted into the body. Below are seven common types of diagnostic imaging tests you may be sent for by a doctor.
MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, is a type of scan that is used for imaging soft tissues, like organs and tendons. This scan is popular because it produces detailed images without the use of radiation that other scans rely on. Instead, a combination of strong magnetic fields and radio waves is used. This process takes longer than other scans, and rather than a few minutes, an MRI scan can take hours to administer in some cases.
In an MRI, the patient will lay on a table that travels through a large metal tube. They will need to lie still while the imaging is being done and will communicate with a technician through a speaker in order to ensure they are positioned correctly. These machines can be loud and lying still may be uncomfortable, so while they are not painful, some patients request sedation to avoid claustrophobia. Some providers will offer an open MRI machine, which removes the sides, but this is not always available.
MRIs can be used for a variety of reasons. Your doctor might recommend an MRI to check cases of:
- Spinal cord and brain anomalies
- Cysts and tumors
- Cancer screenings
- Joint abnormalities or injuries
You may also hear of MRA scans, which are a form of MRI specifically used to collect information about the condition of blood flow and the blood vessel walls. Calcium deposits, aneurysms, and clots in the blood vessel are all common diagnoses that an MRA can confirm.
A CT scan, which you may hear called a cat scan or a computed tomography scan, use a string of scans from various angles to generate cross-sectional images of the blood vessels and soft tissues within the body. These scans can be administered quickly, which makes them ideal for situations involving trauma or potential emergency, like internal bleeding. CT scans do use radiation, which doctors will try to avoid when possible, but they are still non-invasive and safe.
Doctors will commonly use CT scans to evaluate the spine, brain, neck, abdomen, and chest in order to gather clear images of both the hard and soft tissues in these regions. Because of the complex imagery available, diagnoses can be made with these images and other conditions can be monitored. A CT scan will usually be performed on one area of the body, for example:
- A brain or head CT scan will check for stroke, bleeds, masses and examine the skull
- Chest CT scans provide insight into abnormalities that appear on a chest x-ray
- CT scans of the neck identify enlarged glands or lymph nodes
- Spine CT scans identify problems like the spinal canal narrowing, herniated discs, and fractures
One of the most commonly used and well-known versions of a diagnostic imaging test is an x-ray, which primarily shows the bones. X-ray equipment uses a high-energy beam that cannot be absorbed by bones and other dense tissue to generate an image. This can be used to identify the cause of pain or the extent of an injury, as well as evaluate the effectiveness of treatment.
X-rays are quick and usually painless, though they do emit a small amount of radiation onto the area of the body being imaged.
Mammography is a form of x-ray imaging that specifically scans the breast tissue to search for early signs of breast cancer that are not identifiable on a traditional x-ray. A mammogram can show breast tissue changes as well as lumps and other abnormalities. You will usually be sent for this test only if you experience a lump or other sign of problems, but after a certain age, mammograms are performed regularly to detect breast cancer early on and increase the risk of survival.
Many women find mammograms uncomfortable or even painful, as the breast is placed between multiple plates that may compress it. Larger breasts often lead to more discomfort during the procedure, but it is a short period of time with benefits that outweigh this discomfort.
Bone Density Scans
Usually used to determine whether a patient has osteoporosis, a bone density scan is an indirect test that measures the amount of bone material per square centimeter of bone. This may also be called a bone mineral density test and will use x-ray equipment to measure the minerals and calcium packed into a small segment of bone. Typically, the scan is conducted on a hip, the spine, or a forearm. A higher density indicates less chance of a bone breaking, while a lower level will indicate the potential for osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis, which makes bones fragile and susceptible to breaking and is usually a result of aging, could previously not be diagnosed early on in the condition. By identifying these problems early, your doctor can help prevent broken bones through monitoring and the use of medication.
Joint problems can have a significant impact on your quality of life, including preventing movements and making daily tasks difficult. If your doctor suspects a joint problem but has not seen any signs on other scans, they may perform an arthrogram or arthrography, which makes use of a combination of images from x-ray, fluoroscopy, CT scans, or MRIs of the joints.
Before undergoing an arthrogram, the radiologist will inject your joint with a contrast dye like iodine., guided by a fluoroscope to properly deposit the dye. It then coats the linings of your joint structure, making them appear white on the images and highlighting abnormalities and problems that the doctor may use for a diagnosis.
When a doctor needs specific imaging of the spinal canal, such as the spinal tissue, spinal cord, or surrounding nerves, a myelogram is the test they will choose. During this exam, contrast dye is injected into the spinal cord space via a fluoroscope, which allows the technician to capture moving x-ray images. As the dye flows through the spaces, the doctor can examine the area for abnormalities such as tumors, inflammation, or infections.
Typically after a myelogram, a CT scan will also be conducted to better define any potential issues. This combination allows for nuanced information that can help doctors reach an accurate diagnosis.
When to Seek Diagnostic Imaging
You will usually not visit the doctor specifically looking for a diagnostic imaging test to be performed. Instead, if you have any symptoms that concern you, your provider should follow typical diagnosis practices and determine whether they feel a scan is necessary. They will also be able to determine the best type of scan for your specific scenario. One exception may be a broken bone, in which case you will likely request an x-ray, but even then, you should follow your doctor’s guidance.
All diagnostic tests are generally considered to be safe and effective; however, you will need to talk to your doctor about specific exceptions, such as pregnancy or other contraindications.
In many cases, scans can create more stress, as you may have to go to another facility or see another specialist in order to have one performed. At AICA Conyers, our offices include diagnostic imaging equipment and radiologists and technicians trained to administer these tests. Without seeking out a separate provider, you can undergo diagnostic imaging and have the right provider read and interpret the results. Whether you have been in a car accident, have general back pain, or are suffering from a condition such as migraines, visit AICA Conyers today to see if there is a diagnostic imaging test for your situation.