CDI Miami | Tuesday December 23, 2014

Full Body Scans: The Good, The Bad, and the “Incidentalomas”

internet medical degreeThere is no doubt that CT scans are extremely useful diagnostic imaging tools. The pictures they provide can help doctors identify and treat various types of diseases such as cancer, vascular disease, pulmonary embolisms, aortic aneurysms and spinal problems. For patients in certain risk groups or with strong family histories of disease, doctors will sometimes order a full body scan so they can see how internal systems are functioning. These total body scans can be useful in identifying and treating diseases and abnormalities that are in the earliest stages.

While the majority of people seeking a full body scan do so at a doctor’s orders, a growing number of patients are proactively seeking them out. They undergo the testing without any particular symptoms and use them as a preventative tool to see whether anything abnormal is happening within the body. As such, there is a great deal of concern over this practice in the medical community.

Firstly, performing a total body scan without a clear purpose can lead to unnecessary worry and stress. Many people have small, benign internal abnormalities that will be picked up by a CT, but are actually nothing serious. Due to the growing popularity of self-directed full body scans, radiologists have coined the term “incidentalomas” to refer to benign tumors that are found “incidentally” by total body scans. Discovering these incidentalomas typically leads to further unnecessary testing – or possibly surgery – and it rarely leads to improved health. It’s more likely to cause stress and anxiety for the patient than anything else.

On the reverse side, a full body scan in an otherwise healthy person can create false negatives. This can happen when everything appears to be normal, but in fact the patient has a condition that will appear in the near future. The person thinks everything is fine and is falsely reassured. Then when symptoms present themselves, the patient is more likely to ignore them because “everything is fine.” In these cases, the harm outweighs the benefit.

Finally, the risk of unnecessary radiation may be a concern. While the radiation from a CT scan presents little risk when the test is administered prudently, radiation exposure can add up for people who frequently undergo needless tests. A full body scan emits much higher levels of radiation than an X-ray, and it exposes all of the organs to radiation, rather than just a small area of the body. This can increase the risk of overexposure.

While a total body scan may seem like a wonderful advancement in preventive care, for now, it is best for patients not to proactively seek a full body scan and to get one only at the direction of their doctors.