What's it like: To get a CT scan

A computed tomography scan is an imaging method that uses X-rays to create pictures of cross-sections of the body, according to Medline Plus. It's a popular test used in hospitals to diagnose several different types of ailments.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: January 6, 2013

Why get a CT scan?

A computed tomography scan, or CT scan, is a common test ordered in hospitals for a variety of patients. It uses X-rays to create pictures of cross-sections of the body.

You can get a CT scan of any part of the body. You might have a CT scan if you have had a stroke or experienced a head trauma or broken bone. Patients with unexplained stomach, chest or head pain might also get a CT scan. A CT scan can also help diagnose unexplained confusion or a neurological problem. Also, cancer patients get CT scans frequently for follow-up studies.

Through the years, the CT scan has started to supplement the physical diagnosis and help doctors become more specific. There is some debate that the CT scan is overused.

What happens when you get a CT scan?

Before the test, it's important to tell the medical staff whether you're pregnant and also whether you're allergic to the contrast dye they sometimes use, which is generally an iodine-based dye.

To begin, you will lie down on a table. The table will lift, and generally, you'll be placed through a doughnut-shaped scanner. Unlike an MRI scanner where you're enclosed, the CT scanner is open, and you will be able to see around you. It's important to remain as still as possible.

Once the scanner starts, the X-ray beam will go through you, rotating around you. The test usually takes between five and 15 minutes, depending on the machine being used.

Does it hurt?

The dye used during a CT scan is inserted through an intravenous needle. This dye can help make parts of your body more visible in the images the scanner provides. The needle injection likely will be the only pain associated with your test. Otherwise, it should be painless.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, medicine and fitness, among other things. She graduated from Oklahoma State University with a news-editorial and broadcast production degree. Outside of work, she enjoys riding her bike, taking pictures of...
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