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Feb 08, 2012

Cardiac Imaging and Radiation Risk

Weighing the risks and benefits of radiation from medical tests.

Although we may not realize it, our bodies are continually exposed to radiation. From the earth that we live on, outer space, and everything in between, radiation is naturally emitted into our atmosphere for our bodies to absorb. Fortunately, we experience such low doses of natural radiation that it often does not have an effect on our health, even over a lifetime. However, many worry that radiation from artificial sources, which are often in much higher doses than our bodies are used to, may actually have negative long-term effects, including causing cancer.

One of the most common sources of artificial radiation is from medical tests, such as X-rays and cardiac imaging. Although these tests often emit significantly higher doses of radiation in just one sitting—greater than years of exposure to natural radiation combined—research has not showed that the possible risks associated with medical tests outweigh the benefits. However, as the volume of such tests continues to increase, and patients can undergo these procedures more frequently than in the past, there are growing concerns that it may have an impact on our health.

In a recent article published by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, expert Andrew Einstein, MD, PhD, helped break down concerns about radiation after reviewing the many studies that have been conducted on the topic over the years. Ultimately, he concludes that there are no large, reliable studies that show that medical tests—specifically cardiac imaging—increase cancer risk. And although there are a few research studies in the works that will soon help us better understand the effects of cardiac imaging on our health, he underscores the importance of sticking to current guidelines regarding medical tests and radiation. Because each patient has a unique threshold for radiation exposure, tests should always be done using the lowest dose of radiation possible to achieve the most optimal results. And patients should always weigh the benefits and possible risks of tests with their doctor to decide what is best for them and their health.

Read this Article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What types of medical tests emit radiation?

  • There are a number of medical tests that emit radiation, including X-rays, CT scans and cardiac imaging. However, each test can emit different doses of radiation.
  • Do radiation risks associated with medical tests often outweigh the benefits?

  • Risks and benefits of medical tests vary between the type of test and the health and history of each patient. Therefore, the risks and benefits for tests are unique to each patient and should be discussed with a health care provider.