Harvard Men's Health Watch

Medical radiation: Too much of a good thing?

It all started in 1895, when Wilhelm Roentgen discovered x-rays. Six years later, he was honored with the first Nobel Prize in Physics; by then, doctors were already using primitive x-rays to diagnose illnesses. The collaboration between physicians and physicists has continued ever since, resulting in amazing advances far beyond Roentgen's wildest dreams.

Modern imaging techniques have saved countless lives. But like every medication and operation, these benefits come at a cost, both in dollars and sometimes in health. In the case of imaging, potential problems include both misdiagnosis and over-diagnosis, which often lead to excessive or unnecessary treatment. And additional side effects may result from the very radiation used to produce many types of diagnostic images.

Physicists tell us that ionizing radiation delivers energy in the form of photons that pack enough oomph to strip electrons away from the nuclei of atoms. We are continuously exposed to tiny amounts of ionizing radiation from cosmic rays and naturally occurring radioactive elements here on earth. We accept this so-called background radiation without blinking an eye, but we rightly fear exposure to devastating doses of ionizing radiation from nuclear accidents or atomic weapons. And research has focused attention on potential harm from the radiation used for diagnostic imaging.

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