A CT scan is a test that uses x-rays and a computer to create detailed pictures of the inside of your body. It takes pictures from different angles. The computer puts them together to make a 3 dimensional (3D) image.
CT (or CAT) stands for computed (axial) tomography.
You usually have a CT scan in the x-ray (radiology) department as an outpatient. A radiographer operates the scanner. The whole appointment can take up to an hour and a half depending on which part of your body they are scanning.
Why you might have a CT scan
There are many reasons why you might be sent for a CT scan if you have ALL. Its best to ask your doctor or nurse the reason you have to have one.
Some of these reasons include:
- checking whether the leukaemia has caused any of your lymph nodes (glands), spleen or liver to get bigger (enlarged)
- checking how well your treatment is working if anything was enlarged at diagnosis
- to look for infections
When you arrive
You complete a questionnaire before you have the CT, you might have been sent this in the post with your appointment letter beforehand.
The radiographer might ask you to change into a hospital gown. You should remove jewellery and other metal objects, bra, hair clips around the area being scanned. Metal interferes with the images produced by the scanner.
In the scanning room
When you’re ready, your radiographer or an assistant takes you into the scanning room. A CT scanning machine is large and shaped like a doughnut.
You might have an injection of a type of dye called a contrast medium through a small tube (cannula) in your arm. You may:
- feel hot and flushed for a minute or two
- have a metallic taste in your mouth
- feel like you’re passing urine but you aren’t – this feeling is common and passes quickly
- feel sick
Tell your radiographer if you feel anxious or claustrophobic about having a scan.
Having the CT scan
You usually lie down on the machine couch on your back. Once you’re in the right position, your radiographer leaves the room to protect them from the radiation. They can see you on a TV screen or through a window from the control room. You can talk to each other through an intercom.
The couch slowly slides backwards and forwards through the hole of the scanner. The machine takes pictures as you move through it.
The scan is painless but can be uncomfortable because you have to stay still. Tell your radiographer if you’re getting stiff and need to move.
During the scan
You’ll hear a whirring noise from the scanner.
Your radiographer might ask you to hold your breath at times.
When the scan is over, your radiographer comes back into the room and lowers the couch so you can get up.
This 2 minute video shows what happens when you have a CT scan.
Voiceover: A CT scan helps your doctor make a diagnosis, decide about what treatment you need or find out if your treatment is working.
This type of scan takes a series of x-rays and uses a computer to put them together.
Before your scan you may need to drink either half a litre of water or a type of dye called a contrast medium. This helps to make the scan clearer.
Before most scans you have a small tube put into your vein, which connects to a drip containing the dye. Again, this helps to show up the inside of your body more clearly on the scan.
During the scan the bed moves in and out of the scanner. You may find it a bit noisy.
As the drip goes in you’ll probably get a metallic taste in your mouth, feel warm and you might think you are passing urine, you’re not. These feelings pass quickly.
The radiographer controls the scan from a separate room. The CT machine takes pictures of your body from different angles and builds up a series of cross sections.
This creates a very detailed picture of the part of your body being scanned. Most scans take just a few minutes. The whole thing takes about 90 minutes and you usually get the results within a couple of weeks.
After your CT scan
You stay in the department for about 15 to 30 minutes if you had an injection of the dye. This is in case it makes you feel unwell, which is rare.
The radiographer removes the cannula from your arm before you leave.
You then go back to the ward if you are an inpatient or go home. You can eat and drink normally.
Getting your results
Ask your doctor when to expect your results and how you will receive them.
Waiting for test results can be a worrying time. You might have contact details for a specialist nurse and you can ask them for information. It may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.
A CT scan is a safe test for most people but like all medical tests it has some possible risks. Your doctor and radiographer make sure the benefits of having the test outweigh these risks.
Rarely, people have an allergic reaction to the contrast medium. This most often starts with weakness, sweating and difficulty breathing. Tell your radiographer immediately if you feel unwell.
Bruising and swelling
You might get a small bruise around the area where they put the needle in.
There's a risk that the contrast medium will leak outside the vein. This can cause swelling and pain in your hand or arm but it’s rare.
There is a small risk that the contrast medium can affect your kidneys. Your radiographer checks your most recent blood test results before your scan to make sure your kidneys are working well.
Exposure to radiation during a CT scan can slightly increase your risk of developing cancer in the future. Talk to your doctor if this worries you.
Pregnant women should only have CT scans in emergencies. Contact the department as soon as you can before the scan if you are pregnant or think that you might be.