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Do I need an abdominal CT scan? Benefits, risks, and more.

Abdominal CT scan: woman smiling while looking at the camera

Key takeaways:

  • CT scans use X-ray technology to create images of soft tissues and organs.
  • Abdominal CT scans create images of the belly to help detect disease and cancer.
  • Colon, kidney, and pancreatic cancer and diseases caused by inflammation can be found with abdominal CT scans.
  • The risks of abdominal CT scans include radiation exposure and allergic reaction.
  • Early cancer detection with CT scans can improve the chance of cancer survival.
  • Ezra’s full-body MRI includes the abdomen and does not include radiation exposure or risk of an allergic reaction.

You’ve probably heard of a CT or CAT scan before, but it can be difficult to understand the differences between CT scans, X-rays, and MRIs. All of these diagnostic tests help monitor internal organs, tissues, and bones.

Abdominal CT scans can help identify the cause of sudden belly pain and are usually needed to confirm kidney stones, pancreatitis, or appendix ruptures. Like general CT scans, an abdominal CT scan helps detect soft tissues, lymph nodes, and organs, making them a promising ally in the fight against cancer.

These CT scans can help identify cancer or an abnormality before a person has any symptoms, making early abdominal CT scans helpful for early cancer detection. 

What is a CT scan?

CT stands for Computed Tomography and is a method of generating images of bones and soft tissue. The most common types of CT scans create images of the brain, chest, abdomen, and pelvis.

CT scans, also called CAT scans, use a computerized X-ray procedure to create images the radiologist evaluates for tissue and organ abnormalities. Rather than a traditional X-ray, which only gives one snap-shot at one angle, CT scans create several images or slices of images. These cross-sections are then combined to help create a larger image. This is why several organs or tissues can be evaluated after one CT scan.

Another way to think of CT scans is like a spiral cut ham–each little slice is a tiny picture of your organ and tissue health. When you put them all together, this creates a more complete representation of what’s going on. 

Abdominal CT scans.

An abdominal CT scan generates images in and around the belly, including the kidneys, spleen, liver, and pancreas. Lymph nodes and blood vessels can also be evaluated with a CT scan of the abdomen. 

These CT scans can help evaluate patients who are experiencing kidney problems, abdominal pain or swelling, or are concerned about kidney stones or appendicitis.

They can also help monitor patients who have cancer or are at risk for developing cancer, as CT scans are great at detecting masses or tumors in organs. 

CT scan vs MRI scan.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are another type of diagnostic imaging used to generate images of the body’s structures. MRIs differ from CT scans in how they create the image. CT scans use X-ray technology, and MRIs use magnetic fields and radio frequencies.

This means MRIs don’t have harmful radiation exposure and often offer a clearer, more detailed image. MRIs are generally safe, but since they use magnets, people with certain implantable devices like pacemakers or insulin pumps may need to talk with a radiologist before completing an MRI. 

What can an abdominal CT scan reveal?

Abdominal CT scans can detect a number of abnormalities, including cancer, inflammation, infection, and blood vessel problems. Here a few of the cancers an abdominal CT can help detect:

  • Kidney cancer
  • Color cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Melanoma
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer

Inflammation is a common cause of abdominal pain and swelling. Abdominal CT scans can help identify certain diagnoses related to inflammation, including:

  • Cholecystitis (swelling of the gallbladder)
  • Pancreatitis
  • Hydronephrosis (swelling of the kidney)
  • Appendicitis

Not only can abdominal CT scans help identify areas of inflammation–they often detect what’s causing the inflammation. For example, kidney stones and gallstones create swelling and pain and these pesky stones can be seen on a CAT scan. 

What to expect during an abdominal CT scan.

Abdominal CT scans typically take less than 30 minutes to complete. You most likely will be asked to wear a hospital gown and remove things like buttons, buckles, and metal, which can interfere with the imaging. 

Many CT scans use a special dye called contrast to help the radiologist see the structures of your tissues and organs better and helps highlight certain areas. 

Some people say they feel a warming sensation when the IV contrast is given or even a metallic taste is noticed in their mouth. But, like the CT scan, the IV contrast is painless. The most uncomfortable part will most likely be lying on a hard table.

Note: If you take certain medications like Metformin, your radiologist may ask you to not take it for a few days prior. Make sure to tell them about all your prescriptions and other medications. 

In addition to IV contrast, certain abdominal CT scans require drinking oral contrast. In this case, you may have to pick up the oral contrast and drink it several hours before your CT scan. You can ask your radiology team to give you written instructions so you don’t forget.

There are certain CT scans that don’t require contrast at all, including the low-dose CT scan offered by Ezra.

What are the risks of an abdominal CT scan?

abdominal CT scan: illustration of CT scan machine

Like most procedures, there are a few risks to an abdominal CT scan. Some people have an allergy to contrast dye and can have a severe allergic reaction. This reaction can include hives, itching, nausea, or even trouble breathing.

Many contrast dyes contain iodine, so if you know you have an iodine allergy, make sure you let your provider know. Sometimes, patients need medications to prevent the reaction. And sometimes, the scan is completed without contrast. 

Contrast dye can also be hard on your kidneys. If someone has kidney problems, contrast dye can cause further damage to the kidneys. 

While not all CT scans use contrast dye, if you have any of the above issues, discuss them with your health practitioner before scheduling a scan.

Radiation exposure is another risk of CT scans. Abdominal CT scans take multiple X-ray images during the scan. Therefore, you’re exposed to more radiation than a traditional X-ray. Over time, repeated exposure to radiation can increase your risk of cancer. Thankfully, CT scan technology has improved over time and uses the smallest amounts of radiation needed–but the risk is still there.

Protect your health with Ezra’s full-body MRI scan.

man smiling while looking at the camera

CT scans can help detect cancer early, which often leads to better treatment outcomes. Many cancers (especially those originating in the abdomen) have very few, if any, early symptoms. That’s why early abdominal CT scans play an important role in detecting colon, pancreatic, and kidney cancers.

The Ezra full-body MRI scan can help detect cancer and other abnormalities before they progress. The full-body MRI includes the abdomen, so it captures all of the organs and tissues that appear in an abdominal CT scan. It’s also radiation-free, reducing your risk of exposure.

Early detection is cancer’s greatest weakness. Learn more about the full-body MRI scan and pricing options.

Ezra takes considerable safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including thorough cleanings between exams, social distancing in waiting rooms, and providing MRI-compatible masks to wear during the scan. Postponing your scan has its own risks—make your appointment today.