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.
Equivalent background radiation
CT cervical spine
CT T&L spine
Plain T&L spine
scanner (that hands
in the air TSA thing at
Scatter from a chest
x-ray in trauma bay
when standing one meter from the
Scatter from a chest
x-ray in trauma bay
when standing three meters from the
Previously, I posted about “other people” wearing perfectly good lead aprons lifting them up to their chin during portable xrays in the trauma bay. Is that really necessary, or is it just an urban legend?
After hitting the medical radiation physics books (really light reading, I must say), I’ve finally got an answer. Let’s say that the xray is taken in the “usual fashion”:
Portable technique in your trauma bay
Tube is approximately 5 feet above the xray plate
Typical chest settings of 85kVp, 2mAs, 3mm Al filtration
Xray plate is 35x43cm
The calculated exposure to the patient is 52 microGrays. Most of the radiation goes through the patient onto the plate. A very small amount reflects off their bones and the table itself. This is the scatter we worry about.
So let’s assume that the closest person to the patient is 3 feet away (1 meter). Remember that radiation intensity diminishes as the square of the distance. So if the distance doubles, the intensity decreases to one fourth. By calculating the intensity of the small amount of scatter at 3 feet from the patient, we come up with a whopping 0.2 microGrays. Since most people are even further away, the dose is much, much less for them.
Let’s put it perspective now. The background radiation we are exposed to every day (from cosmic rays, brick buildings, etc) amounts to about 2400 microGrays per year. So 0.2 microGrays from chest xray scatter is less than the radiation we are exposed to naturally in about 44 minutes!
The bottom line: unless you need to work out you shoulders and pecs, don’t bother to lift your lead apron every time the portable xray unit beeps. It’s a waste of time and effort, unless you are dealing with xray imaging on a very regular basis! And that 52 microGrays the patient absorbed? That’s 8 days worth of background radiation.
It happens all the time. You get that initial chest and/or pelvic xray in the resuscitation room while evaluating a blunt trauma patient. A few minutes later the tech returns with another armful of xray plates to repeat them. Why? The patient was not centered properly and part of the image is clipped.
Where is the left side of the chest, and do we care?
Do you really need to go through the process of setting up again, moving the xray unit in, watching people run out of the room (if they are not wearing lead, and see my post below about how much radiation they are really exposed to), and shooting another image? The answer to the question lies in what you are looking for. Let’s address the two most common (and really the only necessary) images needed during early resuscitation of blunt trauma.
First, the chest xray. You are really looking for 3 things:
Big air (pneumothorax)
Big blood (hemothorax)
Big mediastinum (hinting at aortic injury)
Look at the clipped xray above. A portion of the left chest wall is off the image. If there were a large pneumothorax on the left, would you be able to see it? What about a large hemothorax? And the mediastinum is fully included, so no problem there. So in this case, no need to repeat immediately.
The same thing goes for the pelvis. You are looking for gross disruption of the pelvic ring, especially posteriorly because this will cause you to intervene in the ED (order blood, consider wrapping the pelvis). So if parts of the edges or top and bottom are clipped, no big deal.
Bottom line: Don’t let the xray tech disrupt the team again by reflexively repeating images that are not technically perfect. See if you can use what you already have. And how do you decide if you need to repeat it later, if at all? Consider the mechanism of injury and the physical exam. Then ask yourself if there is anything you could possibly see that was not imaged the first time that would change your management in any way. If not, you don’t need it. But it certainly will irritate the radiologists!
There are generally three ways to share radiographic images with your upstream trauma center:
Hard copy. These days, that usually means a CD. Nearly all PACS systems (picture archiving and communications systems) can write CDs that can accompany your patient. Advantage: super cheap. Possible downsides: the CD may be corrupted and not openable, the software on the disk cannot be installed or will not run at the receiving hospital, and finally it can just be forgotten in the rush to get the patient out of the ED.
PACS system connections. These are software links that enable one hospital’s PACS software to communicate with another’s. They must be established in advance, and generally require some expertise from the hospitals’ IT departments. Images can be pushed from one system to another. Advantages: once set up, it is very inexpensive to maintain, and images can be viewed prior to patient arrival at the receiving hospital. Possible downside: Al-though the interchange format is standardized, every once in a while the systems just can’t communicate.
Web-based image sharing system. This consists of a web server-based software application available via the internet that allows subscribing hospitals to sign on and share images. Referring hospitals can upload images from their PACS systems for free, and the receiving hospital can view the images and/or download into their own system. Advantage: these products are simple to set up, and easy to use after just a little training. Compatibility is very high, and the services are continually working to ensure it. Downside: expensive. Depending on specifics, the annual subscription may be up to $100K per year, and is generally footed by the receiving trauma center.
Is a web-based solution worth it? MetroHealth in Cleveland looked at this over five years ago, and published their results in 2015. They looked at their experience pre- and post-implementation and found the following:
Three years of transfer data prior to the web system implementation was compared to one year of experience after
CT imaging decreased at both referring and receiving hospitals across the study period
Repeat scan rate decreased from 38% to 28%. Repeat head scans were the major driver at 21%.
Cost of reimaging dropped from about $1000 per patient to $600
Bottom line: As a referring hospital, it is your responsibility to ensure that the (hopefully) few images you obtain make it to the upstream trauma center. Although hard copy (CD) is the cheapest, it is also the least reliable. Work with your radiology and IT departments to determine which electronic solution is best for you. Some states and regional trauma systems help subsidize or provide a web-based solution for their member hospitals.
Reference: Implementation of an image sharing system significantly reduced repeat computed tomographic imaging in a regional trauma system. J Trauma 80(1):51-56, 2016.
In my last post, I debunked the myth that using a pre-formed aluminum splint significantly degrades the quality of standard x-rays. But what about a study that provides much more detail, such as CT scan?
CT scan techs have told me that there would be too much artifact using any kind of metal splint. And typically, when imaging an extremity with CT, we are looking at vascular runoff. The vessels are small, and high image quality is extremely important. If the images are bad, then we risk having to give the patient another dose of both radiation and contrast.
As you know, my mantra is question everything! So i scouted around and found some images to share using one of these splints. Look closely for the intimal flap in the image below:
Can’t see it? That’s because it isn’t there! But you certainly could if it were!
Bottom line: A perforated aluminum splint causes absolutely no artifact or image degradation. Do not cause additional injury by removing it prior to imaging, either CT or conventional x-ray. Although your friendly techs, radiologists, and orthopedic surgeons may moan, it won’t hurt their ability to make decisions on the images.
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