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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; CT scan - cervical spine; Neck CT scan

How the test is performed

You will be asked to lie on a narrow table that slides into the center of the CT scanner.

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 cervical spine 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 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.

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

CT rapidly creates detailed pictures of the body, including the cervical spine. The test may be diagnose or detect:

  • Birth defects of the cervical spine in children
  • Spine problems, when a spine MRI cannot be used
  • Injury to the upper spine
  • Bone tumors and cancers
  • Broken bone

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
  • Osteoarthritis

What the risks are

Risks of CT scans include:

  • Being exposed to radiation
  • Allergic reaction to contrast dye

CT scans do expose you to more radiation than regular x-rays. Having many x-rays or CT scans over time may increase your risk for cancer. However, the risk from any one scan is small. You and your doctor should weigh this risk against the benefits of getting a correct diagnosis for a medical problem.

Some people have allergies to contrast dye. Let your doctor know if you have ever had an allergic reaction to injected contrast dye.

  • 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.
  • If you absolutely must be given such contrast, your doctor may give you antihistamines (such as Benadryl) or steroids before the test.
  • The kidneys help remove iodine out of the body. Those with kidney disease or diabetes may need to receive extra fluids after the test to help flush the iodine out of the body.

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

Torg JS. Cervical spine injuries. Huber FG. Arm. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr, Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez’s Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 16.

Curlee PM. Other disorders of the spine. In: Canale ST, Beaty JH. Campbell's Operative Orthopaedics. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier;2007:chap 21.

Grainger RG, Thomsen HS, Morcos SK, Koh DM, Roditi G. Intravascular contrast media for radiology, CT, and MRI. In: Adam A, Dixon AK, eds. Grainger & Allison's Diagnostic Radiology: A Textbook of Medical Imaging. 5th ed. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone; 2008:chap 2.

Shaw AS, Dixon AK. Multidetector computed tomography. In: Adam A, Dixon AK, eds. Grainger & Allison's Diagnostic Radiology: A Textbook of Medical Imaging. 5th ed. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone; 2008:chap 4.


Review Date: 2/17/2011
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine; C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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