When to Have an Imaging Test

What is an imaging test and what is it used for? 

Using an imaging test to see inside a patient helps doctors to diagnose and treat health problems. Common imaging tests are X-rays, CT scans (sometimes called CAT-scans), and MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging). X-rays frequently are used to find out if a bone is broken or not, but X-rays also can be used to identify a wide variety of other health problems. Like X-rays, CT scans are used to diagnose bone problems as well as chest and lung problems and to spot cancer. MRIs are most often used to take pictures of the soft tissue inside our joints, such as our elbows and knees. They also are used when your doctor needs to see pictures of things like your brain, spinal cord, or kidneys.

What are the benefits of imaging tests?

Imaging tests allow doctors to see what cannot be seen with the human eye. When we are sick or in pain, imaging tests can help doctors learn more about what they can't see.

What are the drawbacks?

Imaging tests are not always necessary. For instance, imaging tests usually do not reveal the cause of headaches or back pain, and they do not help patients with these conditions get better faster. And having unnecessary imaging tests increases the amount of radiation we are exposed to, which can be bad for our health if we are exposed to too much radiation over time. Another drawback is that these tests can be very expensive and add to the cost of your health care.

What is quality health care when it comes to imaging tests?

You and your doctor can talk about whether or not an imaging test could be helpful for diagnosing a particular health problem. In some cases, high quality health care may be not getting an imaging test for conditions such as lower back pain and sinus infections. Talk to your doctor about what is best for you.

What questions should I ask my doctor about imaging tests?

Learn more about when imaging tests can help you from the Choosing Wisely Campaign and Consumer reports, including lower back pain