Is That CT Scan Really Necessary?

December 4, 2019
Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS

Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS

Award-winning nutritionist and New York Times bestselling author.

Today, an estimated 15,000 people die each year from cancers caused by the radiation from CT scans alone. How can you reduce your exposure and figure out whether you really need that CT scan?

Healthcare providers today are ordering more radiation-based imaging tests than ever – with CT scans alone accounting for one-fourth of all radiation exposure in the US, according to a report from the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. Since the invention of the CT (Computed Tomography) scan in the 1970s, the popularity of this ionizing radiation-based imaging has exploded. Just under 3 million CT scans were done in 1980 in the US, as compared to 85 million last year – and studies show that approximately one-third of them are unnecessary. There’s no question that countless lives have been saved by this Nobel Prize-winning invention, but at what cost?

All of this radiation exposure adds up to a major health threat for you. The more radiation you are exposed to in your lifetime, the higher your risk of getting cancer. Researchers predict that at least 2 percent of all cancer in the US will be from CT scans alone. Based on current cancer prevalence, that means approximately 29,000 new people per year will be diagnosed with cancer from CT scan exposure – and 15,000 people will die from it. And it could be anywhere from 5 to 60 years after CT exposure that the cancer develops, so it’s much like a ticking time bomb.

What’s the Risk?

CT scans use ionizing radiation to get their detailed look inside your body, the same radiation that we’ve been warned about from X-rays and nuclear imaging. The powerful blast of radiation from a CT scan is the equivalent of about 200 chest X-rays. We do have naturally occurring ionizing radiation in our atmosphere, but it would take seven years of exposure to natural sources to equal the exposure of one CT scan.

Ionizing radiation in the dose delivered by a CT scan is enough to damage your DNA and create free radicals, the molecules that cause oxidative stress and wreak havoc on your organs, tissues, and cells. When the radiation from CT scans causes you accumulate more damage than your body can repair, this is when cancer and other chronic diseases appear.

A 2013 Australian study that looked at more than 680,000 people who had CT scans is helping us to quantify that damage. People scanned had a 24 percent increased risk of cancer, and each additional scan increased that risk by another 16 percent. Factors that affect how well you can handle the radiation include your age, lifestyle, previous radiation exposure, vulnerability of the tissue being scanned, and the measures your technician takes to protect you from the radiation.

The units we use to measure the amount of radiation you are getting (mSv) take into account the type of radiation and the vulnerability of the tissues being scanned. This gives us your “equivalent dose” of radiation, so we can measure the biological impact of the radiation on your body.

When we use this form of measurement we can see that the survivors of the 1945 atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima got an equivalent dose of radiation to what you get from 2 or 3 CT scans, and the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident in 2011 caused less radiation exposure than one CT of your abdomen and pelvis does!

Why Are We Getting So Many Scans?

As you can clearly see, all of this radiation exposure is a serious threat to your health. So why are we getting so many CT scans done? Here are the main reasons:

  • We aren’t aware of the danger. A Consumer Reports Survey of more than 1,000 adults found that only 2 percent of people who had CT scans done felt the test might have been unnecessary. And how many of us are aware of the radiation risks?
  • We don’t say “no.” That same survey showed that only 4 percent of people have ever told their doctor they didn’t want a CT scan or asked for an alternative.
  • We don’t ask the hard questions. We don’t ask why the test is being done, how the results will be used, how much radiation we’ll be exposed to, what happens if we don’t get the test, and what radiation-free alternatives are available (like ultrasound or MRI). We don’t ask the technician – who isn’t subject to any national standards for training or certification – whether the dose of radiation we’re receiving has been adjusted for our body size or the sensitivity of the tissues being irradiated.
  • We asked for it. It’s easy to think that new recurrent headache could be a tumor, your child’s belly pain is their appendix, or your unexplained illness might finally be diagnosed by a thorough radiological scan. But, your medical history is the best guide to diagnose your ills, and CT scans done without relevant symptoms rarely yield any valuable findings. There’s also a chance of an incidental harmless finding that spurs additional CT scans, X-rays, and unnecessary radiation exposure. An MRI and ultrasound are actually the better tests for the soft tissues of the brain and body, and most importantly, the test to avoid at all costs is the full body scan. One study found that for every 1,250 people who get a full body scan, one of them dies of radiation-related cancer.
  • Your healthcare provider has a financial incentive. Doctors who have invested in radiology equipment or facilities have been shown in studies to order significantly more CT scans and other imaging tests. In addition, your provider may get incentives or discounts based on volume, so they are more motivated to order a lot of tests.
  • Your healthcare provider is unaware of the risks. In a 2012 study of medical providers caring for patients getting an abdominal CT, less than half knew the scans have been shown to cause cancer. In another study, only 9 percent of emergency physicians knew that CT scans increased cancer risk. The Consumer Reports survey showed that fewer than 1 in 6 patients had been warned by their healthcare provider about the dangers of CT radiation.
  • Your doctor is afraid of being sued. When a healthcare provider has to weigh the benefits of a test vs. the risks, they have to take into consideration whether they could be sued for not ordering the test. According to a study from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, almost 35 percent of imaging tests were ordered primarily as a defense against lawsuits, NOT because of true medical need. And it’s important to note that despite the risks, there are no laws or federal regulations limiting how much radiation you can be exposed to during a CT scan.

How to Limit Your Exposure to Medical Radiation

There’s no question that CT scans save lives, especially when there’s been a trauma or emergency situation- but there’s also no question the radiation causes cancer. So how can you limit your exposure and determine when the benefits outweigh the risks? Here are 5 questions you can ask your healthcare provider to help you make your decision the next time they recommend a CT scan:

  • Can a test with lower or no radiation be used? Neither ultrasound nor MRI use radiation, and they don’t appear to harm DNA or increase cancer risk. And many healthcare providers assume their patients want the more detailed scan, but in truth, a lower radiation X-ray could be substituted – if you ask.
  • What difference will this test make in how my condition is treated? For instance, does it save you from a more invasive procedure? Or will it lead to treatments you aren’t willing to have? If having a CT scan done can eliminate the need for invasive surgery, then it may be well worth having done. On the other hand, if the CT scan is being used as a precursor to a therapy that isn’t within your healthcare beliefs, then perhaps another alternative needs to be considered.
  • Considering my previous medical radiation exposure, does this CT need to be done? I can’t overemphasize the importance of keeping track of your own medical radiation history and showing it to any healthcare provider – including your dentist – who suggest further radiological testing. Remember, once your cumulative exposure exceeds your body’s ability to repair itself, that’s when you are at risk of developing cancer. It’s up to you to stay on top of that risk as you seek help from different healthcare providers.
  • Can I get these scans less often? Some chronic conditions require monitoring with regularly scheduled CT scans. But, as our knowledge evolves, new research may show that scheduling them less often is just as effective, or there may be new testing available to replace the scans. And, if you feel that the scans are more harm than help, you can ask for a different approach, like lower radiation imaging or some time of observation and testing without imaging.
  • Does this incidental finding really need CT follow-up? Here’s what commonly happens – you feel you are being a proactive patient and asking for the most thorough evaluation of your issues that you can have done. You want to be assured nothing is missed, and your doctor wants to avoid a lawsuit for the same reason, so they order an unnecessary CT scan for a small, incidental finding that may be nothing. This is the first time to ask if a CT is really necessary. Let’s say you have that CT done, and while the area of concern is clear, there’s a small, incidental finding somewhere else. Now your healthcare provider wants to follow-up with another CT to chase down what the incidental finding was, adding to your cumulative radiation exposure. This is the other very important time to ask if the CT is really necessary.

Dr. Hazel Parcells Radiation Detox Bath

For decades, I have recommended this radiation detox bathing formula to my clients. I rely on it myself and I’m delighted to pass it on to you. Just don’t take more than one bath a day—and don’t mix with other baths!

To recover from radiation exposure during air travel, dental X-rays, mammogram, CT scan, radiation therapy, or if you live within 100 miles of a nuclear plant:

  • Run a tub to the hottest temperature you can stand. Dissolve 1 pound of sea salt or rock salt and 1 pound of baking soda into the water, and begin to soak.
  • Sip a glass of warm water mixed with ½ teaspoon of rock salt and ½ teaspoon of baking soda.
  • Get out of the bath when the water is cool. Don’t shower for at least four hours.


For a FREE daily dose of tips and strategies for maintaining healthy weight, conquering insomnia, and much more… check out my Radical Health Tips.”

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Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, is an award-winning New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty books including The Fat Flush Plan series and her latest book, Radical Metabolism. She’s been rewriting the rules of nutrition for more than 40 years and is internationally recognized as a pioneer in the field of diet, detox and women’s health issues. 

For a FREE daily dose of tips and strategies for maintaining healthy weight, conquering insomnia, and much more…check out my Radical Health Tips.

I’d like to meet and greet you on my Facebook groups, so won’t you check us out at the Radical Metabolism RevolutionFat Flush Nation, or my Inner Circle!


  1. Lou Ellen

    Great to know about ways to detox from these invasive scans. Thanks!

  2. Jennifer Pert

    So shocking to learn that so many die from exposure to this radication! I will avoid these scans in the future.


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