(Spinal CT Scan, CT of the Spine or Back)
Computed tomography (CT or CAT scan) is a noninvasive diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce both horizontal and axial images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than standard X-rays.
In standard X-rays, a beam of energy is aimed at the body part being studied. A plate behind the body part captures the variations of the energy beam after it passes through skin, bone, muscle, and other tissue. While much information can be obtained from a standard X-ray, a lot of detail about internal organs and other structures is not available.
In computed tomography, the X-ray beam moves in a circle around the body. This allows many different views of the same organ or structure. The X-ray information is sent to a computer that interprets the X-ray data and displays it in a two-dimensional (2D) form on a monitor.
CT scans may be done with or without "contrast." Contrast refers to a substance taken by mouth or injected into an intravenous (IV) line that causes the particular organ or tissue under study to be seen more clearly. Contrast examinations may require you to fast for a certain period of time before the procedure. Your physician will notify you of this prior to the procedure.
CT scans of the spine can provide more detailed information about the vertebrae (bones of the spine) and other spinal structures and tissues than standard X-rays of the spine, thus providing more information related to injuries and/or diseases of the spine.
Other related procedures that may be used to diagnose problems of the spine include x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the spine, and positron emission tomography (PET) scan of the spine. Please see these procedures for additional information.
The spinal column is made up of 33 vertebrae that are separated by spongy disks and classified into distinct areas.
The spinal cord, a major part of the central nervous system, is located in the vertebral canal and reaches from the base of the skull to the upper part of the lower back. The spinal cord is surrounded by the bones of the spine and a sac containing cerebrospinal fluid. The spinal cord carries sense and movement signals to and from the brain and controls many reflexes.
A CT scan of the spine may be performed to assess the spine for a herniated disk, tumors and other lesions, the extent of injuries, structural anomalies such as spina bifida (a type of congenital defect of the spine), blood vessel malformations, or other conditions, particularly when another type of examination, such as X-rays or physical examination, is not conclusive. CT of the spine may also be used to evaluate the effects of treatment of the spine, such as surgery or other therapy.
There may be other reasons for your physician to recommend a CT scan of the spine.
You may want to ask your physician about the amount of radiation used during the CT procedure and the risks related to your particular situation. It is a good idea to keep a record of your past history of radiation exposure, such as previous CT scans and other types of X-rays, so that you can inform your physician. Risks associated with radiation exposure may be related to the cumulative number of X-ray examinations and/or treatments over a long period of time.
If you are pregnant or suspect that you may be pregnant, you should notify your physician. Radiation exposure during pregnancy may lead to birth defects. If it is necessary for you to have a CT of the spine, special precautions will be made to minimize the radiation exposure to the fetus.
Nursing mothers should wait 24 hours after contrast material is injected before resuming breastfeeding.
If contrast dye is used, there is a risk for allergic reaction to the dye. Patients who are allergic to or sensitive to medications should notify their physician. Studies show that 85 percent of the population will not experience an adverse reaction from iodinated contrast; however, you will need to let your physician know if you have ever had a reaction to any contrast dye, and/or any kidney problems. A reported seafood allergy is not considered to be a contraindication for iodinated contrast.
Patients with kidney failure or other kidney problems should notify their physician. In some cases, the contrast dye can cause kidney failure. The effects of kidney disease and contrast agents have attracted increased attention over the last decade, as patients with kidney disease are more prone to kidney damage after contrast exposure. Also, patients taking the diabetes medication metformin (Glucophage) should alert their doctor before having IV contrast, as it may cause a rare condition called metabolic acidosis. If you take metformin, you will be asked to stop taking it 24 hours before and for 48 hours after your injection. A blood test may be required before you can start taking metformin again.
There may be other risks depending upon your specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your physician prior to the procedure.
CT scans can be performed on an outpatient basis or as part of your hospital stay. Procedures may vary depending on your condition and your physician's practices.
Generally, a CT scan of the bones, joints, and soft tissue follows this process:
While the CT procedure itself causes no pain, having to lie still for the length of the procedure might cause some discomfort or pain, particularly in the case of a recent injury or invasive procedure such as surgery. The technologist will use all possible comfort measures and complete the procedure as quickly as possible to minimize any discomfort or pain.
If contrast dye was used during your procedure, you may be monitored for a period of time for any side effects or reactions to the contrast dye, such as itching, swelling, rash, or difficulty breathing. Notify the radiologist or your physician if you experience any of these symptoms.
If you notice any pain, redness, and/or swelling at the IV site after you return home following your procedure, you should notify your physician as this could indicate an infection or other type of reaction.
Otherwise, there is no special type of care required after a CT scan of the spine. You may resume your usual diet and activities unless your physician advises you differently.
Your physician may give you additional or alternate instructions after the procedure, depending on your particular situation.
The content provided here is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your physician. Please consult your physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.
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