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Would You Benefit from a Whole-Body Scan?

By Sarah Densmore

The whole-body CT scan is another weapon in the arsenal of early-detection health screens. Although the number of medical facilities offering this screening is on the rise, the scan’s ability to identify disease is limited. Before you plunk down big money for whole-body CT, make sure you know how the test can and can’t benefit you.

Full-body scans use computed tomography (CT) to take a series of X-ray images of a person’s heart, lungs, abdomen, and pelvis. Specifically, the images are very thin, cross-sectional slices of the interior of the body. When these slices are reassembled on a computer they provide doctors with detailed views of bones, organs, and other tissue. The non-invasive procedure takes about 15 minutes.

CT scans can make sense of symptoms

Generally, a CT scan is most helpful in diagnosing a specific disease or abnormality in people who have symptoms. CT scans can be excellent aids in verifying the existence, size, and location of tumors, and detecting muscle and bone disorders, aneurysms, and other internal injuries.

However, there is no scientific evidence demonstrating that CT scans are effective in detecting diseases at a stage that’s early enough to positively impact a person’s survival. Because of this, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved the use of whole-body CT scanning as a general screening tool.

One piece of early-detection information a full-body scan can tell you is the amount of calcium in your arteries. It’s important information because doctors know arterial calcifications can indicate cardiovascular disease. However, you don’t need to pay for a whole-body CT to find this out. You can undergo a far less-expensive CT scan called a heart scan or coronary calcium scan.

Also, preliminary studies suggest that full-body CT may be effective in detecting early-stage lung and colon cancers, but more research needs to be done.

Whole-body CT may miss more than it finds

If you think a full CT scan will give you piece of mind by indicating you’re perfectly healthy, or that it’ll uncover all of your health problems, you’re going to be disappointed. Here are just a few of the ways in which a whole-body scan falls short as a screening tool.

  • It can’t tell you if you have some of the most common health problems, including high blood pressure and diabetes.

  • It doesn’t look at your head, legs, or feet, so if you’ve got a problem above or below your torso, the scan won’t find it.

  • It isn’t as reliable as traditional screening techniques in finding breast or cervical cancer.

    A whole-body scan is usually performed without injecting the patient with contrast dye. While this makes the procedure noninvasive, it also makes the results less reliable. Contrast dye is the stuff that makes it easier to detect abnormalities and differentiate between cancerous and non-cancerous growths.

  • It can give false positive results. The scan may detect growths or lesions that aren’t a danger to your health, such as a bit of scar tissue from a previous lung infection or a benign cyst on your ovary. However, because it can be hard to figure out from a non-contrast CT what’s cancer and what’s not, you may have to suffer through lots of anxiety and follow-up tests before you find out there was no cause for alarm.

  • It can give false negative results. If your whole-body scan comes back clean, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for health problems. Along with not being able to detect common diseases like hypertension, your non-contrast CT test may miss small cancerous tumors.

The radiation you’ll receive from a whole-body CT is larger than that of a traditional X-ray. Radiation is a known carcinogen, so if you’re concerned about radiation exposure, talk with your doctor before being scanned.

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