You will be asked to lie on a narrow table that slides into the center of the CT scanner. Only your head is placed inside the CT scanner.
You may be allowed to rest your head on a pillow, but this must be done before the scan begins.
Once you are inside the scanner, the machine's x-ray beam rotates around you. (Modern "spiral" scanners can perform the exam without stopping.)
A computer creates separate images of the body area, called slices. These images can be stored, viewed on a monitor, or printed on film. Three-dimensional models of the body area can be created by stacking the 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 only 10-15 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 helps certain areas show up better on the x-rays.
Contrast can be given through a vein (IV) in your hand or forearm. If contrast is used, you may also be asked not to eat or drink anything for 4-6 hours before the test.
Let your doctor know if you have ever had a reaction to contrast. You may need to take medications before the test in order to safely receive this substance.
Before receiving the contrast, tell your health care provider if you take the diabetes medication metformin (Glucophage) because you may need to take extra precautions.
If you weigh more than 300 pounds, find out if the CT machine has a weight limit. Too much weight can cause damage to the scanner's working parts.
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
This test is helpful for diagnosing diseases that affect the following areas:
CT scans and other x-rays are strictly monitored and controlled to make sure they use the least amount of radiation. 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 out weigh 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, sneezing, vomiting, itching, or hives may occur.
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. If you have kidney disease or diabetes, you should be closely monitored for kidney problems after this test. If you have diabetes or have kidney disease, talk to your health care provider before the test about your risks.
Before receiving the contrast, tell your health care provider if you take the diabetes medication metformin (Glucophage) because you may need to take extra precautions and stop the medication for 48 hours after the test.
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.
Massoud TF, Cross JJ. The orbit. In: Adam A, Dixon A, eds. Grainger and Allison’s Diagnostic Radiology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2008:chap 61.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; Jason Levy, MD, Northside Radiology Associates, Atlanta, Georgia. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.