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CT Scan Increase Could Mean More Cancer Down the Road

Nov 29, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

CT Scan overuse could be putting many people at an increased risk for developing cancer, a new study says.  The findings regarding the CT Scan - cancer link are disturbing, especially as they come on the heels of other research that found pregnant women are now being exposed to twice as much radiation through CT Scans as they where just a few years ago. In addition to putting these women at risk of developing cancer in the future, increased radiation exposure through CT Scans could put their babies at risk for serious diseases.

CT Scans, also called CAT Scans, produce three-dimensional x-ray images of the body that can be quickly taken in multiples and be displayed on a screen.  Diagnosticians favor CT Scans because they can reveal abnormalities that are too small or obscured to be seen by more traditional x-rays.   CT Scans have proven to be particularly useful in diagnosing trauma and cancer patients.

The latest CT Scan research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the number of CT Scans most people are exposed to had risen dramatically in the past 27 years.   In 1980, doctors ordered an average of 3 million scans per year in the United States.   Now, about 62 million CT Scans are done each year in this country.  The rise in CT Scans can be attributed, in part, to an increase in "defensive" medicine.  This occurs, for example, when people who are admitted to an emergency room are routinely given a CT Scan even before receiving a diagnosis or being seen by doctor.  Controversial uses of CT Scans for whole-body scanning, virtual colonoscopy and lung cancer screening have also made CT Scans more prevalent.

The dose of radiation received by patients subject to a CT Scan can be 50 to 100 times larger than that of a traditional x-ray.   That is exactly where the problem of CT Scan overuse lies.  The type of radiation used in CT Scans, ionizing radiation, has the capacity to damage DNA, causing cells to mutate.   This in turn leads to cancer. While the risk of one CT Scan to an individual is small, the study's authors wrote that they are concerned about the built-up risk of frequent CT Scans over time.  In a few decades, as many as 2% of all cancers in the United States might be caused by radiation from CT scans given now.

The increase use of CT Scans in pregnant women is especially concerning.  Earlier this week, scientists at Brown University published research that found that pregnant women were being exposed to double the dose of radiation that was typical just a decade ago.  Between 1997 and 2006, the number of imaging studies done on pregnant women increased by 121%, with the biggest increase being in CT Scans.   Such imaging procedures expose a developing baby to gene-altering radiation when it is most vulnerable to harm. 

The authors of the New England Journal of Medicine report said they where not trying to scare people who need CT scans away from having them. However, using the scans to screen people with no symptoms of illness has not been shown to save lives and could be doing far more harm than good.

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