Abdominal computed tomography scan

What is an abdominal computed tomography scan?

Abdominal computed tomography Scan abbreviated as CT scan is a specialized kind of X-ray that scans your abdominal region so as to reveal the cross-sectional images of the organs, bones, and blood vessels therein.

It is mostly carried out when your doctor wishes to confirm the presence or absence of an abnormality in your abdomen especially when every other laboratory test or physical examination has failed. It is therefore confirmatory.

Your doctor might order for an abdominal computed tomography scan in any of the following cases:

  1. When you have appendicitis
  2. When you are experiencing unexplained weight loss
  3. When you have persistent abdominal pains
  4. When you have an obvious abdominal mass and you can actually feel it.
  5. In cases of kidney stones
  6. When there is a need to conduct a physical examination for an intestinal obstruction
  7. When the bowels are inflamed e.g. Crohn’s disease
  8. When injuries are sustained following a trauma
  9. When you have been recently diagnosed with cancer

Your doctor can choose an abdominal computed tomography scan instead of a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) because a CAT scan is cheaper, faster, and space-friendly compared to an MRI. CAT scan is space-friendly in the sense that you do not have to be restricted to a small enclosed place for the procedure to be carried out as seen in MRI.

Your doctor might prefer an abdominal computed tomography scan to an X-ray because it is more detailed as compared to an X-ray.

A computed tomography scanner checks the entire body, and taking images from various angles. While an X-ray gets images from just one angle of the body, a CAT scan can take a cross-sectional view of abdominal structures and thus can provide comprehensive details compared to an X-ray.

Abdominal computed tomography scan - Copy
 Photo Credit: QMedicine

Preparing for an abdominal computed tomography scan

To undergo this procedure, you may have to stop eating for 2-4 hours before the scan, avoid taking some medications that might interfere with the scan, put on loose clothing so that you can lie with ease on the examining table, and remove items that might affect the procedure. Examples of such items are hearing aids, eyeglasses, brassiere with an underwire made of metal, hair clips, jewelry, dentures, etc.

You might also have to drink some generous quantity of a liquid called oral contrast that contains two substances -barium or Gastrografin (e.g. diatrizoate sodium and diatrizoate meglumine liquid). These two substances help a doctor to have better pictures of your abdominal structure. Contrast can take about 1 to 1.5 hours before it completely circulates in the body.

It is very important that you let your doctor know if you’re diabetic, pregnant, or allergic to iodine, barium, or any type of contrast before you embark on the scan.

Alongside using barium as a contrast dye, you might have to take an intravenous contrast dye. This intravenous dye is to allow for the highlighting of the abdominal structures including the blood vessels. It is likely going to be a dye made of iodine concentrates. IV contrast has a very slim chance of being allergic. Hence it is useful for people who have allergies, especially iodine allergy. Steroids can also help reduce your chances of having a reaction.

Conducting an abdominal CT scan

An abdominal CT scan typically lasts for 10 – 30 minutes. It can be done in any hospital that handles diagnostic procedures.

To perform a CAT scan, you will have to lie on an examining table using a specific position. Other supports for easy assessment might be a pillow or straps as the case may be. The essence of this is to allow the technician to properly view your body.

An IV contrast dye is then injected. Your history of allergies with dyes will be considered. The dye can make you feel some warmth upon administration.

At some point in the procedure, it might be required of you to hold your breath. This is to ensure that a clear image is seen. The result will be subsequently sent to a computer for proper presentation and understanding.

Side effects of an abdominal computed tomography scan

Side effects are mostly due to the contrast dye used, and allergies are a common thing.

For instance, it has been found that barium contrast causes constipation, abdominal cramping, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea.

Iodine contrast, on the other hand, induces skin rash, headache, and itching.

Symptoms can be very severe and will require emergency help. For instance, the following cases have been experienced by different people who did this procedure; difficulty in breathing, increased heart rate, swelling of the throat, or other parts of the body.

Risks associated with an abdominal computed tomography scan

Because of exposure to contrast dyes and strong radiations, certain risks are like to abound. Let us look at some of them.

Birth defects: if you are pregnant and are exposed to radiations from a CT scan, your growing fetus might be affected and predisposed to developing genetic defects that can threaten his life at birth and maturity.

Allergic reaction: the most common is skin rashes. The chances of having a life-threatening allergic reaction are rare.

Kidney failure: Intravenous contrast increases the risk of developing kidney failure especially if you have an underlying kidney problem, or you are dehydrated.

The risk of developing cancer is increased by excessive exposure to the sun’s radiation. This risk is quite lower than your chances of developing cancer naturally according to a report from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Outlook

After an abdominal computed tomography scan, you can likely get back to your daily activities.

The result of an abdominal computed tomography scan is processed within 24 hours. A follow-up appointment might be scheduled by your doctor so he can discuss your results with you. An abnormal result is usually an indicator of any of the following:

If there’s an abnormal result, your doctor might direct you to go for a further diagnostic test so he can have detailed information about your condition and how best to treat you.