5 On Your Side

Consumer Reports: CT scans can be dangerous

Posted March 4, 2015 3:29 p.m. EST
Updated March 4, 2015 6:56 p.m. EST

— CT scans, also known as CAT scans, give medical professionals a detailed picture of the inner workings of the human body, but some experts say the scans are being used too much.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, more than 80 million CT scans are performed in the US every year, but a third of those scans serve no medical purpose.

To the average person, a CT scan can look impressive. Their use has exploded since the technology was invented about 40 years ago.

Many people have benefited from a CT scan's unparalleled ability to detect cancer, injuries and other ailments, but Consumer Reports cautions that the misuse of CT scans can lead to serious consequences.

"It is estimated that CT scans may be responsible for at least 2 percent of future cancers in the U.S., resulting in 15,000 deaths per years," said Consumer Reports Medical Advisor Dr. Orly Avitzur.

Just one CT scan can expose a person to as much radiation as 200 chest X-rays, but a recent Consumer Reports survey found just 15 percent of patients were warned about the risks.

"Another factor in the overuse of CT scans are doctors who own their own CT equipment," said Consumer Reports Health Editor Ellen Kunes. "They have a tendency to order more CT scans than doctors who don't."

According to Consumer Reports, patients should always ask why a CT scan is necessary and if some other test, like ultrasound or an MRI, which don't emit radiation, could be just as effective. If a CT scan is the right choice, keep in mind less radiation is needed if you are small and thin.

Consumer Reports warns that "whole body" scans expose you to more radiation than regular CT scans and can often lead to unnecessary follow-up tests.

Experts say it is also important to get a copy of a CT scan. That way you will not have to undergo repeat or unnecessary testing when visiting a new doctor.