You have a horrible headache. Maybe it’s the worst ever. Or maybe it’s accompanied by strange symptoms. Is it serious? Deadly? Better get a scan to check it out…
Wait! Not so fast. Getting a CT scan (computed tomography scan) or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging scan) might sound like a good idea – “better safe than sorry” – but it could do more harm than good.
Thankfully, doctors are being educated about when to use and not use scans. But there are still doctors who are quick to use them – and even patients that demand a scan when it’s really not needed.
The guideline is simple, really. Scans should only be done when there is a good reason to suspect that something will show up – something related to the headache symptoms the patient is experiencing. That includes very few headache patients.
So what’s the problem? Here are some reasons why scans should usually not be done.
- CT Scans: Radiation. This is the easy one. Recent studies have once again raised concerns about the link between CT scans and cancer. Don’t expose your body to radiation unless you’re sure it’s necessary, and the benefits outweigh the risks.
- CT/MRI: There’s often a better way. The doctor can often use a better, more accurate method to find out what’s wrong. Just because these are well known methods, doesn’t mean they’re the best. And just because they find nothing doesn’t mean there’s no physical problem.
- CT/MRI: Time and expense. Admittedly, the expense is often what drives concerns here. As patients, we’re in favour of methods that accurately diagnose the problem – no matter what the expense. On the other hand, when time and money is being wasted on a method that won’t help, there’s a problem. Yes, it is an issue for all of us when money is being wasted on unnecessary scans. Besides, your time is valuable, right?
- CT/MRI: The last issue is the danger of unnecessary treatment. Here’s how it works. You have one of these amazingly accurate scans, and your doctor finds “something wrong”. We all have “something wrong” with us, but many of those things never lead to any symptoms. This “something wrong” your doctor finds leads to treatments, maybe even surgery. All of this does harm to your body. But does it solve the problem?
This is a huge issue right now, because so many tests are available. Statistically, many people are receiving unnecessary treatments and surgery, leading to more complications – when the “something wrong” wasn’t the thing causing the symptoms in the first place.
In short, even “safe” scans like MRIs (although even there accidents happen), and other tests such as EEGs, can lead to more problems for you when they’re used “just because”.
What should I do?
If your doctor recommends a scan, ask why. If she can’t give you a very specific answer, but just wants to “cover all the bases”, get a second opinion.
If a friend or family member is pressuring you to have a scan, send them to this post. 🙂
I’ve been there – it’s tempting to get every test possible, especially when you’ve spent months or years trying to find a solution. But for most of us, these types of scans just mean spending more time on the wrong thing.
MRI and CT scans are wonderful tools that have saved many lives. And yes, in a few headache cases they are a big help. We should be very thankful that they’re available. But let’s use the tools wisely.
- $1 billion a year is spent on brain scans for headache sufferers
- How Much Do CT Scans Increase the Risk of Cancer?
- Why too many CT and MRI scans can be dangerous for patients