A guide to medical imaging for women

A guide to medical imaging for women

Medically reviewed by Barry D. Pressman, MDChair of the Imaging Department at Cedars-Sinai

Medical images it is used by healthcare professionals (HCPs) to view the body and gather information to diagnose and treat medical conditions. Understanding the different types of medical imaging can help you know what to expect.

X-ray

X-rays use radiation to quickly and painlessly create images of structures inside your body. They are commonly used to diagnose bone problems, breast cancer and infections.

  • A type of X-ray called a bone density test (DEXA scan) measure the mineral content of your bones to see how strong they are. It is used to control low bone mass (osteopenia) and weak, brittle bones (osteoporosis).
  • Another type of x-ray, a mammogram, is breast imaging which is used to detect breast cancer.
    • Routine mammograms performed to check for breast cancer are called screening mammograms.
    • Mammograms performed because a woman shows signs of breast cancer, or after suspicious results on a screening mammogram, are called diagnostic mammograms.

What to expect:

Depending on the type of x-ray, you’ll be asked to lie down or stand still, and possibly change positions, while the machine captures images. You should be done in 10-15 minutes.

Not sure what to expect during your first mammogram? Watch “Your First Mammogram: A Step-by-Step Guide” >>

Tips and Tricks:

  • Wear loose clothing and don’t wear anything with buckles, buttons, or zippers. Metal can interfere with test results.
  • Don’t schedule a mammogram during the week before your period. It can be more difficult to get a good picture if your breasts are swollen, and your breasts may be more sensitive right now.
  • When having a mammogram, don’t wear deodorants, antiperspirants, powders, creams, or perfumes in your armpits or around your breasts because they may show up as white spots on X-rays.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

MRI uses magnetic waves to create detailed images of organs and tissues. They can be used to diagnose stroke and blood vessel problems, spinal cord problems, tumors, multiple sclerosis (MS), aneurysms, joint injuries, and more.

What to expect:

You will be asked to remove all clothes and put on a hospital gown. Then, you’ll lie on a table that slides into a tunnel-like MRI machine, which may make loud noises as the magnets work. An MRI usually takes 45 minutes to an hour.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Talk to your healthcare provider about options to help you relax during the MRI scan, such as soothing music or a sleep mask.
  • Some tests require you to be confined to a small space. Talk to your healthcare provider about your options if you have concerns about claustrophobia.
  • You cannot have any metal in the room with you, as an MRI is a giant magnet. Be sure to notify the technician if you have metal in your body.

Animal scan

PET scans show how organs and tissues function. Having a PET scan involves inhaling, swallowing, or ingesting a radioactive medicine (called a tracer) so that a machine can read the radiation emitted by these tracers. PET scans are often used to diagnose cancer, heart problems, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.

What to expect:

After receiving the tracer, you’ll lay down on a table that slides into a donut-shaped scanner. The whole process will take you about two hours.

Tips and Tricks:

  • You will not be allowed to eat or drink for six hours before the PET scan (except plain water with nothing added).
  • If you are breastfeeding, you will not be able to breastfeed for 24 hours after receiving the tracer due to radiation exposure.

CT

Computed tomography, or CT scans, use many X-ray images to create a cross section of body parts, such as bones, blood vessels and soft tissue. CT scans are commonly used to evaluate traumatic injuries, fractures, tumors, infections, heart problems, cancer, and more.

What to expect:

You’ll sit on a table that slides into a donut-shaped scanner, where an X-ray tube will rotate around you as you capture images. CT scans are usually quick and only last about 10 to 15 minutes.

Tips and Tricks:

  • You can probably keep your clothes as long as you avoid wearing clothes with metal zippers or snaps. (Leave jewelry at home, including metal piercings.)
  • Avoid eating and drinking for four hours before the CT scan.

Ultrasound

Ultrasounds use sound waves to capture images of body structures. In addition to helping monitor your pregnancy, ultrasound can be used to diagnose gallbladder disease, breast lumps, swollen joints, genital problems, and more.

  • A type of ultrasound, a transvaginal ultrasound, involves inserting the imaging device (called a transducer) into the vagina. This allows healthcare professionals to see the organs within the pelvic cavity, including the cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.
  • During pregnancy, transvaginal ultrasounds are common during the first trimester (the first 12 weeks). Next, your healthcare provider will likely want to do at least one abdominal ultrasound (also called a ultrasound) to monitor your baby’s development.

What to expect:

An ultrasound technician will apply the gel to your skin, then move the transducer to create images of what’s happening inside your body. The ultrasound will likely take 30 minutes to an hour.

Tips and Tricks:

  • For some types of ultrasound, you may be asked not to eat or drink before the procedure.
  • For an ultrasound during pregnancy, you will likely need to come to your appointment with a full bladder to help the technician get a better view of your baby.

If you have any questions about health imaging, please speak to your healthcare professional.