The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide
Diagnostic Tests - Computed Tomography (CT Scan) for Back Problems
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What is the test?

  • CT scans are pictures taken by a specialized x-ray machine. The machine circles your body and scans an area from every angle within that circle. The machine measures how much the x-ray beams change as they pass through your body. It then relays that information to a computer, which generates a collection of black-and-white pictures, each showing a slightly different “slice” or cross-section of your internal organs. Because these “slices” are spaced only about a quarter-inch apart, they give a very good representation of your internal organs and other structures. Doctors use CT scans to evaluate all major parts of the body, including the abdomen, back, chest, and head

    A CT scan is not a very common test to have done for back problems. It does a better job showing the abdominal internal organs than showing details of the bones in the spine. But some back pain is caused by problems in these internal organs, such as the pancreas or the kidney. The CT scan is an excellent way to examine these organs. Also, the CT scan can be combined with a test called a "myelogram" (discussed separately) to give a clear view of the spinal cord and places where the vertebral bones might be pinching it.


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