In emergency situations, cardiac CT scans can help save lives by providing crucial intel about coronary blood flow. But when heart scans are used in asymptomatic patients as a way to check out what’s happening inside the body, the risk far outweighs the benefit.
Nuclear stress tests, cardiac CT scans, and fluoroscopy are all examples of tests that use ionizing radiation to diagnosis health conditions. Radiation exposure from heart scans is equivalent to 750 chest X-rays, and according to the New England Journal of Medicine, some of these tests expose patients to radiation levels higher than those suffered by Japanese survivors of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki!
In the September 29th 2014 edition of the journal Circulation, the American Heart Association urges doctors to weigh the risks of radiation exposure against the benefit…and to make sure patients are aware of the dangers, because research shows that heart scans increase radiation risk.
The Dangers of Radiation Exposure
In an association news release Dr. Reza Fazel, chair of the statement writing committee and a cardiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said:
“With technological improvements, medical imaging has become an increasingly vital tool in diagnosing and treating patients with heart disease, but the rising use of the tests has led to increasing radiation exposure over the past two decades. Heart imaging procedures account for almost 40 percent of the radiation exposure from medical imaging.”
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, 62 million CT scans are performed every year, compared to 3 million performed in 1980. Research shows that 20 million American adults are exposed to unnecessary and life-threatening radiation.
Radiation has been shown to cause DNA breaks, which triggers mutations in cells and instigates cancer. Younger people are especially vulnerable to radiation risk.
Accessing Radiation Risk
The American Heart Association urges doctors to ask three questions when assessing the need for potentially harmful diagnostic tests:
- How will the test help diagnosis and treat the heart condition?
- Are there alternatives, such as ultrasounds and MRIs that don’t use radiation?
- How high are radiation levels, and will radiation exposure increase risk of cancer and other illnesses down the line.
These questions are all questions the patient should be familiar with as well. If you are an otherwise healthy individual, then implement preventive strategies, such as yearly checkups and blood lipid testing, in addition to proper nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle habits.