Don’t Skip the Scan — Learn the Facts About Medical Imaging Radiation

Two medical staff review an Xray.
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If you or a loved one has an imaging exam coming up, you may be nervous about what the images will reveal or about the radiation you’ll receive. It’s OK to have questions or concerns about how this radiation could affect your health.

That’s why we wanted to share insights from an expert to explain medical imaging and put its risks in perspective. His name is Matt Hough, a board-certified medical health physicist and diagnostic medical physicist.

“It’s important that our patients understand both the benefits and risks of their medical imaging,” he says. “We don’t want unfounded fears to prevent patients from getting a scan that could help them.”

What Is Medical Radiation?

Radiation — like light and radio waves — is a form of energy. When we say “radiation” in medicine, we’re typically talking about higher-energy waves like X-rays and gamma rays.

Doctors use X-rays in general radiography, computed tomography (CT) and fluoroscopy to peer inside the body and create images of bones and soft tissue. They also use it to watch the body swallow or digest food in real time to ensure the body is working as it should. This can often prevent unnecessary surgery or misdiagnoses.

At the same time, high-energy x-rays can damage DNA. Our bodies do a great job of repairing this damage, but they can sometimes introduce an error. As these errors add up with higher or repeated exposures, there is a small chance of cancer occurring years or decades later.

This risk, though small, depends on age, the type of scan and what part of the body is imaged.

What Are the Risks?

We’re exposed to natural background radiation every day. The largest source of that background radiation is radon, an odorless natural gas that comes from soil and certain rocks. Doctors measure medical radiation in a unit called millisieverts (mSv). An average American gets about 3 mSv over the course of a year.

We can compare the radiation from an imaging exam to the natural radiation we get over time.


Approximate Radiation

Comparable to Natural Radiation for:

Hand X-ray

0.001 mSv

3 hours

DEXA (Bone Densitometry)

0.001 mSv

3 hours


0.4 mSv

7 weeks

Head CT

2 mSv

8 months

Abdominal CT

10 mSv

3 years


Decades-long studies following thousands of people exposed to different levels of radiation are inconclusive as to whether low levels of radiation exposure in medical imaging can cause cancer.

For patients, the benefits of appropriate medical imaging exams significantly outweigh the risks.

These benefits include:

  • Guiding treatment
  • Improving cancer diagnosis and treatment
  • Reducing the need for exploratory surgery

Another way to think about medical imaging is to relate it to driving.

“Most people don’t worry every time they get behind the wheel of a car, but driving is a lot more dangerous than medical imaging,” Hough says. Just as you wear a seatbelt and drive safely to lower that risk, we take steps to reduce our patients’ exposure to radiation.

How We Protect Patients

Radiologists (doctors who specialize in medical imaging), technologists and diagnostic medical physicists at AdventHealth meet periodically to evaluate imaging protocols and balance image quality with radiation dose.

AdventHealth is certified by four major accreditation bodies: the American College of Radiology, the Joint Commission, DNV GL and the Intersocietal Accreditation Commission. That means we follow the best practices and meet exact requirements set forth by these groups.

“We’re able to meet image quality requirements at lower radiation levels,” Hough says. We also repeatedly test our imaging technology to ensure it’s within guidelines for radiation doses, and our staff stays on top of the latest recommendations of the scientific community through continuous learning in their respective fields.

Radiation Safety for Children

It’s especially important to be thoughtful about radiation doses in children, because they are developing quickly and are more sensitive to the effects of radiation. Also, there’s more time for the potential effects of radiation exposure to show up compared to adults.

That’s why we’ve taken the pledge to Image Gently, whose website provides information for parents who want to learn more about medical radiation and their child.

That means ensuring we give children the right dose of radiation based on their size, age and type of scan. For example, in CT scanning we take steps to lower the dose and carefully scan only the area we need to.

“We’re here as a resource for radiation safety. We have a strong team of physicians, physicists and technologists who are keeping radiation exposure as low as we can while still providing quality images,” Hough said.

That’s the path to both peace of mind and the most effective treatment.

To learn more about the imaging services offered at each of our locations, please visit our website.

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