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Monday Medical: Understanding imaging studies

Susan Cunningham/For Steamboat Pilot & Today

From MRIs to X-rays, imaging studies provide a great look inside the body. But the variety of options can make it hard to understand what’s needed and why.

That’s where a radiologist, a physician specially trained to interpret medical images, comes in.

“We evaluate the images to figure out what’s going on and work as a team with a patient’s physicians,” said Dr. Malaika Thompson, a radiologist in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.



Below, Thompson outlines what to know about medical imaging studies.

• X-rays: The oldest form of medical imaging, X-rays are quick, easy and inexpensive.



“X-rays provide a two-dimensional picture of what’s going on inside the body,” Thompson said. “They’re best for easy-to-diagnose issues such as fractures or pneumonia.”

X-rays use a very small amount of radiation exposure and are effective and safe to use to determine if a problem exists. The downside? Since X-rays only provide a limited view of soft tissue, additional information through more advanced imaging studies may be needed to make a diagnosis.

• CT scans: CT (computer tomography) scans, also known as CAT scans, take cross-sectional X-rays of the body to provide a more detailed view.

“It’s a more complex way of looking at tissues, structures and organs and defines detail more significantly than X-rays, especially in soft tissue,” Thompson said. “CT scans can help identify and differentiate issues such as cysts, tumors and trauma.”

For a CT scan, the patient lies on a table in the large circular opening of the machine while an X-ray source and detector rotate around the patient’s body. Because numerous X-rays are used to create each image, the exposure to radiation is much higher than conventional X-rays. The American College of Radiation advises thoughtful consideration when choosing an imaging study. The benefits of using radiation to help diagnosis a patient’s illness must be weighed with potential risks.

“It’s something we always consider,” Thompson said. “As radiologists, we try to reduce radiation exposure wherever we can while still getting the answers we need.”

• Ultrasounds: In an ultrasound, high-frequency sound waves are transmitted to the body through a conducting gel; when the sound waves hit a structure, they bounce back and are collected, creating an image. With no harmful effects, ultrasounds are a great option for pregnant women and children.

“If the ultrasound can answer the question or exclude the main issues that are concerning, we can avoid CT scans,” Thompson said.

• MRIs: With MRI, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a strong magnetic field and radio waves are used to capture images of the body’s internal structures and tissues.

“MRIs and ultrasounds can provide excellent differentiation of the soft tissues,” Thompson said. “And both of those have no radiation exposure whatsoever.”

Though MRI does not expose a patient to radiation, the magnetic field can cause issues for patients with pacemakers or other implanted medical devices.

• Contrast may be necessary: Sometimes a chemical compound called contrast is used. Contrast allows doctors to see how the blood flows through the circulatory system and into organs. The contrast aids in identifying inflammation, trauma, tumors and other disease processes. Contrast can be given in three forms; through a vein (intravenous), oral liquid or joint injection. None of the contrasts produce radiation.

• Multiple image studies may be helpful: “One test may not be able to answer all of the questions, but you can use multiple tests to formulate a diagnosis,” Thompson said.

• Communication is key: At Yampa Valley Medical Center, physicians and radiologists often work together closely. “It’s a smaller community, which allows for more communication between radiologists and other physicians,” Thompson said. “That’s one thing we really pride ourselves on.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.


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