Trauma Mortality vs Cancer Mortality from CT Scans for Trauma

Trauma professionals worry about radiation exposure in our patients. A lot. There are a growing number of papers dealing with this topic in the journals every month. The risk of dying from cancer due to CT scanning is negligible compared to the risk from acute injuries in severely injured patients. However, it gets a bit fuzzier when you are looking at risk vs benefit in patients with less severe injuries. Is it possible to quantify this risk to help guide our use of CT scanning in trauma?

A nice paper from the Mayo clinic looked at their scan practices in 642 adult patients (age > 14) over a one year period. They developed dose estimates using a detailed algorithm, and combined them with data from the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation VII data. The risk level for injury was estimated using their trauma team activation criteria. High risk patients met their highest level activation criteria, and intermediate risk patients met their intermediate level activation criteria.

Key points in this article were:

  • Average radiation dose was fairly consistent across all age groups (~25mSv)
  • High ISS patients had a significantly higher dose
  • Cumulative risk of cancer death from CT radiation averaged 0.1%
  • This risk decreased with age. It was highest in young patients (< 20 yrs) at 0.2%, and decreased to 0.05% in the elderly (> 60 yrs)

Bottom line: Appropriate CT scan use in trauma evaluation is challenging. It’s use is widespread, and although it changes management it has not decreased trauma mortality. This paper shows that the risk of death from trauma in the elderly outweighs the risk of death from CT scan radiation. However, this gap narrows in younger patients with less serious injuries because of their very low mortality rates. Therefore, we need to focus our efforts to reduce radiation exposure on our young patients with minor injuries.

Related posts:


  • Comparison of trauma mortality and estimated cancer mortality from computed tomography during initial evaluation of intermediate-risk trauma patients. J Trauma 70(6):1362-1365, 2011.
  • Health risks from low levels of ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII, Phase 2. Washington DC: The National Academies Press, 2006.
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