Tag Archives: imaging

Arms Up or Arms Down In Torso CT Scans?

CT scan is a valuable tool for initial screening and diagnosis of trauma patients. However, more attention is being paid to radiation exposure and dosing. Besides selecting patients carefully and striving for ALARA radiation dosing (as low as reasonably achievable) by adjusting technique, what else can be done? Obviously, shielding parts of the body that do not need imaging is simple and effective. But what about simply changing body position?

One simple item to consider is arm positioning in torso scanning. There are no consistent recommendations for use in trauma scanning. Patients with arm and shoulder injuries generally keep the affected upper extremity at their side. Radiologists prefer to have the arms up if possible to reduce scatter and provide clearer imaging.

Radiation physics research has examined arm positioning and its effect on radiation dose. A retrospective review of 690 patients used dose information computed by the CT software and displayed on the console. Radiation exposure was estimated using this data and was stratified by arm positioning. Even though there are some issues with study design, the results were impressive.

The dose results were as follows:

  • Both arms up: 19.2 mSv (p<0.0000001)
  • Left arm up: 22.5 mSv
  • Right arm up: 23.5 mSv
  • Arms down: 24.7 mSv

Bottom line: Do everything you can to reduce radiation exposure:

  1. Be selective with your imaging. Do you really need it?
  2. Work with your radiologists and physicists to use techniques that reduce dose yet retain image quality
  3. Shield everything that’s not being imaged.
  4. Think hard about getting CT scans in children
  5. Raise both arms up during torso scanning unless injuries preclude it.

Reference: Influence of arm positioning on radiation dose for whole body computed tomography in trauma patients. J Trauma 70(4):900-905, 2011.

If A Tree Falls In A Forest…

It’s time for a little philosophy today. There seem to be two camps in the world of initial diagnostic testing for trauma: selective scanning vs pan-scanning. I admit that I am one of the former. Yes, the more tests you do, the more things you will find, and this will make your radiologist happy. Some of these findings will be red herrings. Some may be true positives, but are they important? Here’s the key question:

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?”

Huh? How does this answer my question? Well, there is a clinical corollary to this question in the field of trauma:

“If an injury exists but no one diagnoses it, does it make a difference (if there would be no change in treatment)?”

Here’s an example. On occasion, my colleagues want to order diagnostic studies that won’t make any clinical difference, in my opinion. A prime example is getting a chest CT after a simple blunt assault. A plain chest xray is routine, and if injuries are seen or the physical exam points to certain diagnoses, appropriate interventions should be taken. But adding a chest CT does not help. Nothing more than the usual pain management, pulmonary toilet, and an occasional chest tube will be needed, and those can be determined without the CT.

Trauma professionals need to realize that we don’t need to know absolutely every diagnosis that a patient has. Ones that need no treatment are of academic interest only, and can lead to accidental injury if we look for them too hard (radiation exposure, contrast reaction, extravasation into soft tissues to name a few). This is how we get started on the path to “defensive medicine.”

Bottom line: Think hard about every test you order. Consider what you are looking for, what you might find, and if it will change your management in any way. If it could, go ahead. But always consider the benefits versus the potential risks, or what I call the “juice to squeeze ratio.”


  • George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, 1734, section 45.
  • paraphrased by William Fossett, Natural States, 1754.

The Cost Of Duplicate Radiographic Studies

Speaking of radiation, here’s another tidbit. Duplicate radiographic studies are a continuing issue for trauma professionals, particularly after transfer from a smaller hospital to a trauma center. The incidence has been estimated anywhere from 25% to 60% of patients. A lot has been written about the radiation dangers, but what about cost?

A Level II trauma center reviewed their experience with duplicate studies in orthopedic transfer patients retrospectively over a one year period. They looked at the usual demographics, but also included payor, cost information, and reason for repeat imaging. Radiation dose information was also collected.

Here are the factoids:

  • 513 patients were accepted from 36 referring hospitals
  • 48% had at least one study repeated, 256 CT scans and 161 conventional imaging studies
  • Older patients and patients with low GCS were much more likely to receive repeat studies
  • There were no association with the size of the referring hospital or the ability of the patient to pay
  • Most transfers had commercial insurance; only 11% had Medicaid and 17% were uninsured
  • Additional radiation from repeat scans was 8 mSv. The average radiation dose from both hospitals was 38 mSv. This is 13 years of background radiation exposure!
  • The cost of all the repeat studies was over $96,000

Bottom line: This is an eye-opening study, particularly regarding how often repeat imaging is needed, how much additional radiation is delivered, and now, the cost. And remember that these are orthopedic patients, many of whom had isolated bony injuries. I would expect that patients with multiple and multi-system injuries would require more repeat imaging and waste even more money. It is imperative that all centers that receive transfers look at adopting some kind of electronic data transfer for imaging, be it a VPN or some cloud-based service. With the implementation of the Orange Book by the American College of Surgeons, Level I and II centers will receive a deficiency if they do not have some reliable mechanism for this.

“Level I and II facilities must have a mechanism in place to view radiographic imaging from referring hospitals within their catchment area (CD 11–42).”

Reference: Clinical and Economic Impact of Duplicated Radiographic Studies in Trauma Patients Transferred to a Regional Trauma Center. J Ortho Trauma 29(7):e214-e218, 2015.

How Much Radiation Exposure In Imaging Studies?

Everyone knows that CT scans deliver more radiation than conventional x-ray. But how much does each test really deliver? And how significant is that?

Let me try to put it all into perspective. First, how much radiation are we exposed to just living outside the hospital? Background radiation is everywhere. It consists of radioactive gases (argon) in the air we breathe, radiation from the rocks and other things around us, and cosmic rays blasting through us from space.

In the United States, the average background radiation each of us is exposed to is about 3.1 milliSieverts (mSv). I’ve compiled a table to show the approximate dose delivered by some of the common radiographic studies ordered by trauma professionals. And to keep it real, I’ve calculated how much extra background radiation we would have to absorb, in units of time, to have an equivalent exposure.

Read and enjoy! Remember, doses may vary by scanner, settings, and dose reduction measures used.

Test Dose (mSv) Equivalent background
Chest x-ray 0.1 10 days
Pelvis x-ray 0.1 10 days
CT head 2 8 months
CT cervical spine 3 1 year
Plain c-spine 0.2 3 weeks
CT chest 7 2 years
CT abdomen/pelvis 10 3 years
CT T&L spine 7 2 years
Plain T&L spine 3 1 year
Millimeter wave
scanner (that hands
in the air TSA thing at
the airport)
0.0001 15 minutes
Scatter from a chest
x-ray in trauma bay
when standing one 
meter from the
0.0002 45 minutes
Scatter from a chest
x-ray in trauma bay
when standing three 
meters from the
0.000022 6 minutes

EAST 2019 #10: Incidental Findings In Trauma Imaging

Every major trauma patient undergoes some type of radiographic imaging during their initial evaluation. On occasion, some incidental finding unrelated to trauma shows up unexpectedly. These incidentalomas add several additional layers of complexity to the evaluation process.

What does the finding mean? Is it important? How do I tell the patient? Their primary care provider? When? Many times, these findings have little clinical significance. But on occasion, they can be life changing, such as the incidental renal cell carcinoma.

The group at University of Tennessee – Knoxville reviewed one year of incidental findings in trauma evaluations at their Level I trauma center. They specifically looked at diagnoses with malignant potential, and how findings were disclosed to the patient.

Here are the factoids:

  • Over 6000 patients were reviewed, and 22% had 1222 incidental findings (that’s 2 per patient!)
  • The findings were noted in males about 2/3 of the time
  • 59% of of incidentalomas were in the chest, and 16% in the abdomen
  • The most common findings were lung nodule (209), hernia (112), and renal cyst (103)
  • Only 60% of patients were informed prior to discharge (!)
  • Trauma registry abstraction resulted in an additional 20% of patients informed of the finding
  • 58 patients could not be located, and in 43 patients there was no documented attempt to contact them
  • An additional 100 registry charts that did not contain incidental findings were re-abstracted and searched for incidental findings. Nearly one third contained incidental findings!
  • If the incidental finding was noted in the radiology report summary, 78% of patients were informed. But when it was buried in the body of the report, only 22% were disclosed.

Here are some questions for the authors and presenter to consider in advance to help them prepare for audience questions:

  • The majority of the incidental findings were in the chest and abdomen. What and where were the rest?
  • What would you recommend for achieving optimal disclosure based on your results? It appears that 20% or so of patients never learned of the finding.
  • What should we do about our registry data? Should we force our registrars to comb all reports for possible incidental findings? Given that one fifth of patients have them (or more) that seems like a lot of work!
  • How has your work changed your practice at UT Knoxville?

This is a fascinating paper, and gives me some ideas for upcoming blog posts! I will definitely be in the audience for this presentation.

Reference:  A novel use of the trauma registry: incidental findings in the trauma patient. EAST 2019, Quick Shot Paper #13.