News headlines have raised concern that Americans are getting too much radiation. You may assume this is from our over-exposure to the sun or tanning beds, airport scanners, microwave ovens, cell phones and handheld electronic devices. However, while statistics show that Americans get more radiation than people in other countries, it isn’t from any of these prime suspects. Our higher radiation levels are reportedly coming from the over-prescribing of X-rays and some other types of medical imaging scans in the U.S. Why worry? If you get too much radiation, even in moderate doses over time, you have a higher cancer risk.
Are you getting too many X-rays?
Part of the problem may be that your primary physician, dentist and health care specialists may not have a comprehensive record of your medical scan history. And, all of them may use scanning technology to diagnose or track health issues. Further, many radiology centers don’t adjust the dose of scanning machines to suit your age, gender and size – they employ a one-size-fits-all approach, over which your physician likely has no control.
How much is too much?
A good general guideline to follow to lower your radiation exposure from scans is that provided by radiologist Dr. Steven Birnbaum. CT scans deliver the highest dose of radiation per test, so you should be most vigilant about those. If you’ve had 10 or more CT scans, or you are under the age of 40 and you have had five CT scans, you should not have more. A child should have even fewer CT scans, and only when necessary.
PET scans are next on the list in terms of radiation dose per test, with mammograms and dental X-rays further down the list. Chest X-rays represent a lower dose or risk of radiation per test, though the number of these you receive should be limited as well.
What you can do
Since it can be difficult for your medical care providers to coordinate or access all your medical files, it might be helpful for you to keep your own record of dental and medical X-rays, including mammograms, CT scans and PET scans. You can also request that your radiation dose be limited and recorded on your image film.
If you feel you have already had too many X-rays or scans and your doctor wants to refer you for another, you may have the option to request an ultrasound or MRI as an alternative. These scans don’t use radiation and can be very effective in providing the diagnostic information your doctor needs.
MRI: Often used as an alternative to a CT scan, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) doesn’t use ionizing radiation. MRI may not provide the clearest images of bone structures, but it does provide very detailed images of soft tissues and structures – with no risk from radiation.
Ultrasound: Ultrasound uses ultrasonic energy to safely provide images of internal organs, muscles and tendons, as well as fetus development during prenatal care. It uses no radiation, and the potential side effects from ultrasound are generally limited to some heat to soft tissue and increased inflammatory response.