What Is a Full Body CT Scan?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 09 May 2020
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A full body Computed Tomography (CT) scan collects images of the patient’s entire body in a series of X-rays processed by a computer. This technology is sometimes recommended for disease prevention, to catch early warning signs of medical issues early. Government agencies and professional organizations of health care providers have advised against this because of the associated risks. Diagnostically, a full body CT scan is rarely useful, because doctors typically need to look at just one area of the body, not the whole. If it is medically indicated in a specific case, it may be considered.

This type of medical imaging uses X-rays, and exposes patients to varying amounts of radiation. The dose can be high with a full body CT scan because of the number of images needed, making it more dangerous than scans of individual areas like the chest or pelvis. Radiation makes it a potentially risky procedure, as it can increase the chances of developing cancer later in life. For preventative screening, these risks may outweigh the benefit of catching something.

In a full body CT scan, the patient lies on a scanning platform inside the equipment, which takes a series of pictures. It is important to hold still during the test to ensure clear image quality. A computer compiles and processes the images to generate useful pictures of the inside of the body. Technicians can select different slices to look at if they have concerns about a particular finding, like a strange growth or a misshapen organ.

Certain populations may be at increased risk of disorders and could benefit from selective screening. Smokers, for example, may receive a chest CT scan to check for growths in the lung. They typically don’t need a full body CT scan because the specific area of interest is the chest. By limiting exposure, medical professionals can strike a balance between helpful preventative care and potentially dangerous and unnecessary medical procedures.

There may be cases in which a doctor wants a full body CT scan to learn more about what is happening inside a patient. This can be discussed with the patient and other members of a care team to determine if it is a good idea. The test is noninvasive, which can be beneficial for patient evaluation, and in some cases the cancer risk may be worth the benefits of the test. This testing can also involve the use of contrast agents to highlight anatomical structures of particular interest.


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