Diagnostic Imaging in Orthopedics: What Do Your Scans Show?

 

If you’ve ever suffered joint pain or have been diagnosed with any type of orthopedic disorder, chances are you’ve also been sent for diagnostic imaging to help your doctor further evaluate your body. 

What do these scans allow your doctor to see, how are they used, and what should you expect during the procedure? 

 

X-Ray

X-rays are the most commonly used diagnostic scan in orthopedics. They are often right in the doctor’s office, are the least expensive type of imaging that can be done. Although they aren’t quite as complex as other imaging, they can be quickly used to ruled out orthopedics problems.

Images from x-rays are created by shining a small amount of electromagnetic waves through the body part. A series of overlapping shadows are produced to create an image which is processed on x-ray film. More dense areas such as bone show up in white, and less dense tissues are seen as darker images, or are not shown at all.

These 2-dimensional images can help orthopedic specialists look for fractures, bone spurs or abnormalities, scoliosis, and bone tumors. By looking at the x-rays taken of the body part they can differentiate a diagnosis, and order more scans if necessary. 

The process is usually quick and for typical orthopedic reasons you don’t need to change anything you eat or drink before the scan. You will need to inform your doctor if you are pregnant, as mostly x-rays are only used in emergencies if a patient is expecting. 

During the x-ray you will be positioned either sitting, standing, or laying down against a flat surface. Depending on the body part being x-rays you might be asked to wear a lead apron to protect your body from the radiation. The x-ray bulb is aimed at the part of the body being scanned and although it is pain-free and only lasts a fraction of a second you should remain still to prevent the image from blurring. 

The entire process only takes a few minutes and considered relatively safe, using only a very low amount of radiation, similar to what you are exposed to over a few days in the natural environment. 

 

CT Scan

CT Scan stands for computed tomography, which uses a large machine with powerful x-rays beams to produce images from different angles. These images stack together form a picture of the inside of the body part, and these 3D images are more detailed than what an x-ray would show. 

CT Scans can better see soft tissue than and x-ray, and can be used to see complex bone and joint problems, tumors, cancer, internal injuries and bleeding, heart disease and infectious diseases.

Being a larger machine than x-rays, CT scans consist of a motorized platform you lie on, with a large donut shaped scanner that rotates around the body part. Most procedures take 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the individual diagnostics of the scan. You are expected to remain still during the procedure. Some CT scans require you to drink a contrast mixture, and may take longer with side effects, but these are not common CT scans in orthopedics. 

Similar to x-rays, CT scans are painless you are able to eat and drink normally before and after. You should not breast feed for 48 hours after the scan and it is not recommended for pregnant women. 

 

MRI

MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging and differs from CT scans because it uses a magnetic field and computer generated radio waves to form an image of the body part being scanned.

The detailed 3D images produced are used in orthopedics to see joint problems with ligaments and cartilage, tumors, disk degeneration and other and spine problems, and bone infections. MRI’s are very effective at monitoring joint deterioration caused by osteoarthritis. 

The machine itself consists of a platform and a large tube shape, some being more open than others. Similar to the CT scan an MRI is performed with the body part in the tube and you are expected to remain still throughout the process. 

The machine uses magnets, so you cannot wear any metal and it can not be done on patients with implants containing metal or internal metal objects. You are able to eat and drink normally before and after an MRI. 

Although the procedure is painless, it can last anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes and some patients might find it uncomfortable and claustrophobic. You should discuss alternate options and modifications with your doctor if you have reservations. 

 

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