What to Expect During a CT Scan
What Exactly is a CT Scan?
Often referred to as “CAT scans,” Computerized Tomography (CT) scans are a type of X-ray that produces cross-sectional images of your body. Unlike traditional X-rays, however, CT scan images allow healthcare providers to have high-resolution images to better diagnose issues involving your bones, internal injuries, tumors, or other conditions that cannot be identified with an X-ray.
I recently had my first CT scan during a follow-up visit with my provider. He wanted a clearer image of my upper neck to monitor issues with my spine and ensure that my condition was not progressing. Without this scan, my provider would not have been able to get a clear picture of the small bones in my neck and how they may be affecting my back.
In this article, I will share the information I learned during my CT scan—including reasons your doctor may recommend the procedure, questions you should ask beforehand, how to prepare, what you can expect during the scan, and tips for following up with your provider to understand your results.
Have you ever had a CT scan?
Reasons Your Provider May Recommend the Procedure
Your provider should explain why he or she would like you to undergo the scan. Some of the most common reasons for CT scans include:
- To more closely analyze internal parts of the body
- To get a more accurate, clear picture of bones and tissues
- To identify blood clots, fractures, tumors, or other issues
- To quickly examine injuries resulting from accidents or trauma
- To diagnose diseases or conditions
- To determine if further tests or procedures are needed
Questions You Should Ask Beforehand
As with any medical procedure, you should ensure you fully know what to expect and why the procedure has been ordered to ensure you fully understand prior to undergoing the scan. Below are some questions to ask your provider if he or she recommends a scan for you:
Will the scan be covered by my insurance?
If you are concerned about cost or just want to make sure you are fully aware of associated costs, ask if the scan will be covered by insurance. Your doctor may not have all the answers so feel free to give your insurance company a call to find out if it will be partially or fully covered, and how much you are expected to be responsible for.
Are there any alternative procedures?
It is always good practice to make sure you understand why any procedure has been recommended and if there are alternative scans or treatments that you should consider first.
Will I need contrast material?
In some cases, your doctor may require that you receive a dye called “contrast material” delivered intravenously prior to your CT scan. This can allow the provider to see your results more clearly. If this is recommended, be sure to tell your doctor if you have any known allergies; in some cases, contrast material can cause allergic reactions.
What are the risks and the benefits?
Knowing the risks and benefits of any medical procedure is good practice. Most likely, your provider would not recommend a CT scan if any risks outweighed the benefit of being able to get a closer picture of what’s going on inside your body to be able to form a more accurate diagnosis.
What can I expect?
If you’ve never had a CT scan before, ask your provider and technologist to fully explain the procedure to you beforehand to minimize any anxiety and get your questions answered.
Benefits of the Scan
CT scans are often used in conjunction with MRI scans and X-rays to get different views and high resolution images. CT scans have an advantage over x-rays however because the large amount of data a CT scan provides, allows doctors to be able to manipulate the data into different views without requiring additional images to be taken of the patient. CT scans also allow providers to be able to enhance the images.
Apart from the obvious advantages CT scans have over traditional X-rays, other benefits include:
High resolution images
Properly diagnose conditions
Assess progress of issues
Risks to Keep in Mind
The risks of this scan are very low compared to the benefits; however there are some to keep in mind. The biggest risks is that the scan will briefly expose you to ionizing radiation which is greater than the amount remitted during an X-ray because the CT scan gathers much more detailed data.
Because of this exposure to radiation, it’s important to let the technician know if you are possibly pregnant. Some scans also require contrast material to which some people may experience allergic reactions.
In addition, some people with asthma, diabetes, or kidney issues may be at higher risk due to radiation exposure.
Talk to your doctor about any risks or concerns ahead of time.
Exposure to radiation
Allergies to iodine
Potential pregnancy risk
Preparing for the Procedure
Just like an X-ray or MRI, you will be required to remove any jewelry, metal objects, hair clips or pins prior to your scan. Apart from removing metal objects, there is very little else you will have to do ahead of time.
The technologist may also ask you to change into a gown or clothing with no zippers, clasps, or buttons that may interfere with the images.
Some examples of items you will need to remove before your scan include:
Buttons, Zippers, Clasps
Hair clips, bobby pins
Bra or wired undergarments
Once you have changed into appropriate clothing or a gown, and all metal objects and accessories have been removed, the technologist will guide you back to the scanning area and begin preparing you for your scan.
During the Scan
If you’ve had an X-ray before, you know that you typically lie down or stand in front of an X-ray machine. A CT scan is actually much more comfortable. Typically, the patient will lie down while the image source rotates rapidly around one’s body as you are carried through the opening of the machine.
This scan is one of the simplest, quickest procedures you will ever have to experience. Once you lie down, the technologist will position you, start the scan, and you should be done within a matter of minutes!
One Woman’s Experience during a CT Scan
My CT Scan Experience
As mentioned earlier, my CT scan was recently ordered by my orthopedic doctor to take a closer look at issues I have been having with my back. I had an MRI done a few months ago, however, my doctor was not able to get a close enough view of the top of my spine and neck during that scan.
Compared to the MRI, my CT scan was so easy and fast! I was in and out in less than 5 minutes and the actual scan took less than 2 or 3 minutes total. I removed all of my accessories including earrings, watch, and bobby pins from my hair, lied down on the table, the scan started, and it was over before I knew it! In fact, we even had the results to go over with my neurologist just a few hours after the scan was completed.
Following Up with Your Provider
Typically a CT scan will be read by your doctor, a neurologist, or a radiologist and interpret the results. He or she will then most likely schedule a time to meet with you and discuss whether or not further scans or procedures are required and their recommendations for the best course of treatment for your medical issues.
Some important questions to ask your provider when discussing results:
- May I see the actual scan?
- What are your recommendations based off of the scan?
- Are further tests or scans needed?
- What is the next step in my treatment?
- Will I need another CT scan in the future?
There is no better way to take your health into your own hands than by asking questions and being proactive in your treatment care plan. Understanding the results and taking your doctor’s recommendations into consideration will allow you and your doctor to development the best treatment plan for you.
Have you ever had a CT scan or do you have an upcoming appointment? What was your experience like? What additional questions were helpful to ask prior to or following the scan that helped in your treatment plan? Share your experience in the comments, below!