CT Scan of the Spine

Computed tomography (CT or CAT) uses X-rays plus a computer to create detailed images of the anatomy. The result is a CT scan with intricate imaging of bones, muscles, fat, or organs.

Digital enhancements make CT scans far more sensitive than standard X-rays. Rather than using a fixed energy beam to image the body like with standard X-ray techniques, CT moves X-ray beams in a circle around the body to enable scanning of multiple organ or structures. Software then interprets X-ray data and displays it as a multi-dimensional image for assessment of bone, muscle, skin, and other tissues. A CT scan will allow doctors to view vertebrae, discs, and musculature in superior to detail to help them glean information related to injuries or diseases of the spine.

What Conditions Does a CT Scan Assess?

A spine CT can check the spine for the following:

  • Herniated disk
  • Infections
  • Structural issues like spina bifida
  • Tumors and lesions
  • Blood vessel problems
  • Effects of spine treatments like surgery or other therapies

What Risks Can Be Associated with a CT Scan of the Spine?

Be sure to discuss your concerns with your doctor before your CT scan to discuss risks specific to your health status. The two main risks include:

Radiation Exposure

Radiation from CT scans varies in volume, and can be up to 100 times greater than a standard X-ray. You should maintain a record of your radiation exposure (including previous CT scans and other X-rays) and share it with your doctor prior to your CT scan, because you could have special risks specific to your medical history. You should also tell your doctor if you are pregnant or could be pregnant. Radiation exposure during pregnancy could cause birth defects and precautions may apply. If you are breastfeeding, be sure to disclose that before having a CT scan.

Reaction to Contrast Dye

An allergic reaction is a rare risk of CT scan with contrast dye. If you have allergies or sensitivities (or have ever had a reaction) to certain medicines, contrast, or iodine, be sure to tell your doctor. Most people won’t have any problems from contrast dye.

Tell your doctor if you have any kidney problems, because it puts you in a higher risk category. CT scans can exacerbate kidney disease.

Before Your CT Scan

Follow any fasting instructions (usually given only when contrast dye is used). You will discuss the CT scan with your health care team, who will explain the test in detail and have you sign forms. Remember to:

  • Ask questions if you don’t understand any aspect of the test
  • Tell the technologist if you have had a reaction to any contrast dye or if you have an iodine allergy
  • Tell your doctor about all medications, vitamins, and supplements you are taking
  • Disclose any recent illnesses or health conditions
  • Tell the technologist if you have body piercings

CT scans are painless, but having to lie still may cause discomfort or anxiety. If you suffer from anxiety, you may want to request a mild sedative.

During Your Scan

All possible comfort measures will be used and the test will be completed as quickly as possible, as follows:

  • You remove clothing, jewelry, or other objects that may interfere with the scan and if you are having a scan with contrast, you will start an IV
  • You will lie still on a narrow table and may be secured to prevent movement during the scan
  • The tube scanner rotates around you as X-rays are made, and the X-ray data is collected from your body is transmitted to a computer (a communication system, with call button, will keep you and the technologist in contact at all times)
  • The computer will transform the data into an image that a radiologist will assess
  • When the test is over, you can leave the scanning area and if you had contrast dye, your IV will be removed
  • You may have to wait for a short time while the radiologist evaluates the scans

After Your CT Scan

  • Tell your doctor if you are having itching, swelling, rash, trouble breathing, or pain and redness at the injection site
  • Return home and resume your activities and diet, monitoring for the above conditions and telling your doctor if they arise

Your doctor may provide you with additional instructions according to your circumstances.

Be in the Know

Before agreeing to a CT scan of the spine or any other procedure, ask the right questions:

  • Why have your ordered the procedure?
  • What are the risks and benefits of the test?
  • What are the possible side effects or complications?
  • What are the credentials and qualifications of the person performing the test?
  • What are the consequences of not having the test?
  • Are there alternative tests I could consider?
  • Whom do I contact should I have problems after the procedure?
  • When can I expect results and what are you looking for?