Pros and Cons of Radiation

As a radiologist, I often receive questions about radiation. Much of the equipment in my field uses radiation to enter my patients’ bodies and create images. We all know that large levels of radiation can be dangerous, but how dangerous is the radiation one receives from an X-ray or CT scan? I am here to answer some of the more common questions that are of concern. 

What is my risk of being exposed to radiation?

Radiation is everywhere and we are exposed to it on a daily basis. It comes from the ground, mostly in the form of radon gas. Radiation also comes from the sky in the form of cosmic rays. An airplane flight brings us closer to the atmosphere and increases our radiation exposure. Because of Denver’s high elevation, people who live in Denver are exposed to more radiation than people in NJ. Sun exposure we receive during the summer months exposes us to ultraviolet radiation, which is why protective sunblock is important. We are always exposed to low levels of radiation, and for the most part it does not adversely affect us. When we are exposed to very high levels of radiation, it can slightly increase our risk of developing cancer in our lifetime. However, for the average person, this is not the case.

Why is radiation dangerous?

When the cells of our body are exposed to radiation, it can create something called free radicals. Free radicals damage the DNA of that cell. Most of the damage is repaired by the cell, but if the damage is severe, two things could happen: the cell can die or the cell’s DNA is repaired incorrectly. If the cell dies, a new cell is created; however, if many cells die and the damage is severe, it could take a long time to recover. If the cell’s DNA is repaired incorrectly, that cell has the potential to become cancerous.

What types of medical imaging expose us to radiation? If I need an X-ray or CT scan, how worried should I be?

Medical devices that emit radiation – including conventional X-rays, CT scans, fluoroscopy, bone density, mammograms, and nuclear medicine studies – all feature very low radiation levels, which does not significantly increase our risk of developing cancer. Imaging is a miraculous tool which provides us the ability to see inside the human body. In my opinion, the lifesaving benefits of using X-rays far outweigh the potential very low risks. Patients who need more frequent scans, as well as young adults and children, who have a higher sensitivity to radiation, would benefit the most from the lowest possible exposure. For these patients, we recommended using imaging machines which do not use radiation, such as ultrasound and MRI. Otherwise, these patients should receive the absolute lowest levels of radiation while still obtaining the best images possible.

The media talks a lot about the high levels of radiation in CT scans. Why can’t CT scans use less radiation?

CT scans give extremely detailed images of the human body to detect disease, infection, trauma, and cancer. CT scans do have higher levels of radiation. The amount of radiation emitted from CT scanners can be adjusted; however, setting a CT to emit a very low level of radiation produces very poor image quality. Image quality is important for accurate diagnosis of specific diseases and cancer. As a doctor and a radiologist, it is extremely important to me to reduce the radiation exposure to my patients as low as possible while still creating high-quality images for accurate diagnosis. That is why we implement the latest techniques using our new ultra-fast, 64-slice CT scanner, which gives the highest image quality while reducing the radiation dose by up to 60%.

In summary, radiation is all around us in low doses. Most medical imaging exposes us to low levels of radiation, which does not significantly increase our risk of developing cancer in our lifetime. As adults grow older, radiation exposure becomes less and less dangerous. Imaging is a miraculous tool which provides us the ability to see inside the human body. In my opinion, the lifesaving benefits of using X-rays far outweigh the potential risks. What is important is to limit the amount of potential radiation exposure. That includes eliminating unnecessary exams and using imaging tools which do not use radiation (such as ultrasound and MRI). Although CT scans do have higher levels of radiation, the occasional CT scan does not significantly increase our risk of developing cancer. Here at Toms River X-ray, CT, and MRI Center, we are committed to using the absolute lowest levels of radiation while still obtaining the best images possible. That is why we are very excited to introduce our brand new 64-slice CT scanner. This state-of-the-art machine uses the latest technology and computer software to dramatically reduce our patients’ radiation dose by up to 60%. I strive to provide the highest level of care and safety for my patients as if it was my own family.