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Are Patients in Danger from Too Much Radiation?

From CT Scans to Cancer Treatment, Patients Can Become Overexposed

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Updated June 19, 2014

In recent years, the amount of radiation being used on patients for diagnosis and treatment purposes has been called into question. While few experts doubt the sometimes life-saving benefits of the right use of radiation at the right time, others point out that its overuse can be dangerous for patients.

Like anything good and useful, there must be balance in how radiation is used. Smart patients understand what radiation is, how it is used medically, the risks and rewards, and the benefits and dangers of using radiation for their medical care.

What is Radiation?

Radiation is a form of energy that occurs naturally, and may be harnessed to use more intentionally. Radiation is not unlike electricity, which occurs naturally in the form of lightning or static electricity, but can be harnessed to run equipment or just to turn on the lights. Depending on how electricity is used, it can be very helpful, or it can kill us from overexposure.

The same is true for radiation. We are exposed to trace amounts of radiation through naturally-occurring avenues such as sunshine, soil, rocks, water and air. Very low levels of radiation are transmitted through everyday man-made objects like TVs and radios, cell phones, automatic garage door openers, microwave ovens -- anything that relies on certain types of radio waves to work. Much larger and more dangerous amounts of radiation are generated by objects such as nuclear power plants or medical equipment used for imaging and treatment.

How Is Radiation Used for Medical Purposes?

Think back over your lifetime of medical care. Have you ever had a CT ("cat" - computed tomography) scan, a PET scan (positron emission tomography), or even an x-ray? All three use radiation to help diagnose medical problems. You may know them by other names, too. Mammograms use radiation to diagnose breast cancer. DXA (DEXA) scans use X-rays to diagnose osteoporosis.

In addition to diagnostics, radiation is a tool for medical treatment, too. Breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer and other cancers may be treated with radiation therapy in an attempt to shrink or destroy tumors or other cancerous cells. Radiation oncology is the term used to describe this form of treatment.

For cancer treatments, a very specific, targeted beam of radiation is pointed at cancerous problem spots, and radiation energy is then used to kill the bad cells and destroy those tumors. Because it can be so well-targeted, the healthy cells in surrounding areas will be spared.

The various radiation-based medical tests like CT scans are not as targeted. They produce images that are far more broad, covering both healthy and cancer-damaged tissues and organs.

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