Why worry about radiation exposure? Radiation in sufficient doses can ultimately cause cancer. It is difficult to arrive at any accurate figure of the number of cancer cases due to x-ray exposure, but it is probably fairly low.
The recent discussion of radiation exposure deals with the newer generation of x-ray exams, especially CT (or CAT) scans. About 60 million scans are done yearly in the U.S. This computerized type of x-ray exam has revolutionized the ability of a physician to diagnose critical diseases and injuries, such as appendicitis, stroke, blood clots in the lungs, kidney stones, internal injuries from accidents, heart attacks and many more serious medical problems. However, the scans expose a patient to much higher doses of radiation than plain x-rays.
Technological advances can help in reducing radiation exposure. Newer scanners may use less radiation, and newer guidelines may allow doctors to use CT scans less often. Attitudes about scanning might need to change, as well. Doctors and patients need a heightened level of awareness about the amount of radiation to which one is exposed.
Another source of concern is the entire-body scan, which has been made popular through direct advertising to the public and can probably cause more harm than good.
In addition to medical diagnostic radiation, we are all exposed to natural environmental radiation from cosmic forces, such as the sun, and even rocks and minerals. You might live in an area with a high exposure to radon gas in your house, which can give you added exposure to radiation. There is also exposure — although very minimal — to man-made factors, such as nuclear weapons-testing fallout, industrial sources, luminous watch dials and smoke detectors.
The bottom line is that you should agree to have a radiation-based medical test when it can improve your health or save your life. Your doctor should discuss with you the benefits versus risks of any x-ray test that is ordered for you.
• Terry Hollenbeck, M.D., is an urgent-care physician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Santa Cruz in Scotts Valley. A doctor with 36 years’ experience, he invites readers to view his previous columns at his Web site, valleydoctor.wordpress.com. Information in this column is not intended to replace advice from your own health care professional. For any medical concern, consult your own doctor.