Radiation, like alcohol, is a double-edged sword. It has indisputable medical advantages: Radiation can reveal hidden problems, from broken bones and lung lesions to heart defects and tumors. And it can be used to treat and sometimes cure certain cancers.
But it also has a potentially serious medical downside: the ability to damage DNA and, 10 to 20 years later, to cause cancer. CT scans alone, which deliver 100 to 500 times the radiation associated with an ordinary X-ray and now provide three-fourths of Americans’ radiation exposure, are believed to account for 1.5 percent of all cancers that occur in the United States.
Recognition of this hazard and alarm over recent increases in radiological imaging have prompted numerous experts, including some radiologists, to call for more careful consideration before ordering tests that involve radiation.
“All imaging has increased, but CTs account for the bulk of it,” said Dr. Rebecca Smith-Bindman, a specialist in radiology and biomedical imaging at the University of California, San Francisco. “There’s clearly widespread overuse. More than 10 percent of patients each year are receiving very high radiation exposures.”
The trick to using medical radiation appropriately, experts say, is to balance the potential risks against known benefits. But despite the astronomical rise in recent years in the use of radiation to obtain medical images, this balancing act is too often ignored. The consequences include unnecessary medical costs and risks to the future health of patients.
Both doctors and patients have a responsibility to better understand the benefits and risks and to consider them carefully before doctors order and patients undergo a radiation-based procedure.