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Cervical spine CT scan

Definition

A computed tomography (CT) scan of the cervical spine is an imaging method that uses x-rays to create cross-sectional pictures of the neck.

Alternative Names

CAT scan – cervical spine; Computed axial tomography scan – cervical spine; Computed tomography scan – cervical spine

How the test is performed

You will be asked to lie on a narrow table that slides into the center of the CT scanner. You will lie on your back with your arms at your sides.

Once you are inside the scanner, the machine's x-ray beam rotates around you. (Modern "spiral" scanners can perform the exam in one continuous motion.)

Small detectors inside the scanner measure the amount of x-rays that make it through the neck. A computer takes this information and uses it to create several individual images, called slices. These images can be stored, viewed on a monitor, or printed on film. Three-dimensional models of the cervical spine can be created by stacking the individual slices together.

You must be still during the exam, because movement causes blurred images. You may be told to hold your breath for short periods of time.

The scan should take 15 – 30 minutes.

How to prepare for the test

Certain exams require a special dye, called contrast, to be delivered into the body before the test starts. Contrast can highlight specific areas inside the body, which creates a clearer image.

Some people have allergies to IV contrast and may need to take medications before their test in order to safely receive this substance.

Contrast can be given in different ways:

  • It may be delivered through a vein (IV) in your hand or forearm.
  • It may be given as an injection into the space surrounding the spinal cord.

If contrast is used, you may also be asked not to eat or drink anything for 4-6 hours before the test.

If you weigh more than 300 pounds, have your doctor contact the scanner operator before the exam. CT scanners have a weight limit. Too much weight can cause damage to the scanner's working parts.

Since x-rays have difficulty passing through metal, you will be asked to remove jewelry and wear a hospital gown during the study.

How the test will feel

Some people may have discomfort from lying on the hard table.

Contrast given through an IV may cause a slight burning sensation, a metallic taste in the mouth, and a warm flushing of the body. These sensations are normal and usually go away within a few seconds.

Why the test is performed

CT rapidly creates detailed pictures of the body, including the cervical spine. The test may be used to:

  • Evaluate birth defects of the cervical spine in children
  • Evaluate other spine problems when a spine MRI cannot be used
  • Evaluate the upper spine after severe trauma
  • Find fractures and other bone injuries

Normal Values

Results are considered normal if the cervical spine is normal in appearance.

What abnormal results mean

Abnormal results may be due to:

  • Birth defects of the cervical spine
  • Bone problems
  • Fracture

What the risks are

CT scans and other x-rays are strictly monitored and controlled to make sure they use the least amount of radiation. CT scans do create low levels of ionizing radiation, which has the potential to cause cancer and other defects. However, the risk associated with any individual scan is small. The risk increases as numerous additional studies are performed.

In some cases, a CT scan may still be done if the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. For example, it can be more risky not to have the exam, especially if your health care provider thinks you might have cancer.

The most common type of contrast given into a vein contains iodine. If a person with an iodine allergy is given this type of contrast, nausea or vomiting, sneezing, itching, or hives may occur. Let your doctor know if you have ever had an allergic reaction to injected contrast dye.

If you absolutely must be given such contrast, your doctor may choose to treat you with antihistamines (such as Benadryl) or steroids before the test.

The kidneys help filter the iodine out of the body. Therefore, those with kidney disease or diabetes should receive plenty of fluids after the test, and be closely monitored for kidney problems. If you have diabetes or are on kidney dialysis, talk to your health care provider before the test about your risks.

Before receving the contrast, tell your health care provider if you take the diabetes medication metformin (Glucophage) because you may need to take extra precautions.

Rarely, the dye may cause a life-threatening allergic response called anaphylaxis. If you have any trouble breathing during the test, you should notify the scanner operator immediately. Scanners come with an intercom and speakers, so the operator can hear you at all times.

References

Hockberger RS, Kaji AH, Newton EJ. Spinal injuries. In: Marx JA, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier;2006:chap 40.

Bagley LJ. Imaging of spinal trauma. Radiol Clin North Am. 2006;44:1-12, vii.


Review Date: 2/4/2009
Reviewed By: Benjamin Taragin, MD, Department of Radiology, Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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