Computed Tomography (CT or CAT) Scan of the Bones
What is a CT scan of the bones?
Computed tomography is an imaging test that uses X-rays and a computer to make detailed
images of the body. A CT scan shows details of the bones, muscles, fat, and organs.
CT scans are more detailed than standard X-rays.
In standard X-rays, a beam of energy is aimed at the body part being studied. A plate
behind the body part captures the variations of the energy beam after it passes through
skin, bone, muscle, and other tissue. While your healthcare provider can get much
information from a standard X-ray, it does not give a lot of detail about internal
organs and other structures.
In a CT scan, an X-ray beam moves in a circle around the body. This allows many different
views of the same organ or structure. The X-ray information is sent to a computer
that interprets the X-ray data and displays it in a two-dimensional (2D) form on a
CT scans may be done with or without "contrast." Contrast refers to a substance taken
by mouth or injected into an intravenous (IV) line that causes the particular organ
or tissue under study to show up more clearly on the scan.
CT scans of the bones can give more detailed information about the bone tissue and
bone structure than standard X-rays of the bone. CT scans can give healthcare providers
more information related to injuries and/or diseases of the bone.
Why might I need a CT scan of the bones?
A CT scan of the bones may be used to assess bones; soft tissues, such as cartilage,
muscles, and tendons; and joints for damage, lesions, fractures, or other problems.
A CT scan may be done when another type of exam, such as an X-ray, MRI, or physical
exam, does not give enough information.
There may be other reasons for your healthcare provider to recommend a CT scan of
the bones, joints, or soft tissues.
What are the risks of a CT scan of the bones?
You may want to ask your healthcare provider about the amount of radiation used during
the CT procedure and the risks related to your particular situation. Radiation from
CT scans varies, but may be up to 100 times greater than a normal chest X-ray. It
is a good idea to keep a record of your radiation exposure, such as previous CT scans
and other types of X-rays, so that you can inform your healthcare provider. Risks
linked to radiation exposure may be related to the cumulative number of X-ray exams
and/or treatments over a long period.
If you are pregnant or think that you may be, tell your healthcare provider. Radiation
exposure during pregnancy may lead to birth defects. If it’s necessary for you to
have a CT of the bones, special precautions will be taken to reduce the radiation
exposure to the fetus.
Nursing mothers should discuss with their provider whether to delay breastfeeding
after receiving contrast. There are conflicting recommendations currently on this
If contrast dye is used, there is a risk for allergic reaction to the dye. If you
are allergic to or sensitive to medicines, contrast, or iodine, tell your healthcare
provider. Studies show that most people will not have an adverse reaction from contrast;
however, you will need to let your healthcare provider know if you have ever had a
reaction to any contrast dye, and/or any kidney problems. A seafood allergy is not
a contraindication for contrast.
Tell your healthcare provider if you have kidney problems. In some cases, the contrast
dye can cause kidney failure. People with kidney disease are more prone to kidney
damage after contrast exposure.
There may be other risks depending on your specific medical condition. Be sure to
discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider before the procedure.
How do I get ready for a CT scan of the bones?
- Your healthcare provider will explain the procedure to you and give you a chance to
ask any questions.
- If your CT scan involves the use of contrast dye, you will be asked to sign a consent
form that gives permission to do the procedure. Read the form carefully and ask questions
if anything is not clear.
- Tell the technologist if you have ever had a reaction to any contrast dye, or if you
are allergic to iodine.
- Tell your healthcare provider of all medicines (prescribed and over-the-counter),
vitamins, herbs, and supplements that you are taking.
- Generally, there is no fasting (not eating) requirement before a CT scan, unless a
contrast dye is to be used. Your healthcare provider will give you special instructions
ahead of time if contrast is to be used and if you will need to withhold food and
- Tell the technologist if you are pregnant or think you may be.
- Tell the technologist if you have any body piercings on your chest and/or stomach.
- Based on your medical condition, your healthcare provider may request other specific
- If you are claustrophobic, discuss taking medicine with your healthcare provider to
help with the test.
What happens during a CT scan of the bones?
CT scans may be done on an outpatient basis or as part of your stay in a hospital.
Procedures may vary depending on your condition and your healthcare provider's practices.
Generally, a CT scan of the bones, joints, and soft tissue follows this process:
- You will be asked to remove any clothing, jewelry, or other objects that may interfere
with the procedure, such as eyeglasses, hairpins, dentures, and possibly hearing aids.
- If you are asked to remove clothing, you will be given a gown to wear.
- If you are to have a scan done with contrast, an intravenous (IV) line will be started
in your hand or arm for injection of the contrast dye.
- You will lie on a narrow scan table that slides into a large, circular opening of
the ring-shaped scanning machine. Pillows and straps may be used to help prevent movement
during the scan.
- The technologist will be in another room where the scanner controls are located. However,
you will be in constant sight of the technologist through a window. Speakers inside
the scanner will allow the technologist to talk to you and hear you. You will have
a call button so that you can let the technologist know if you have any problems during
the scan. The technologist will be watching you at all times and will be in constant
- The scanner will begin to rotate around you and X-rays will pass through your body
for short amounts of time. You will hear clicking and whirring sounds, which are normal.
- The X-rays absorbed by the body's tissues will be detected by the scanner and sent
to the computer. The computer will transform the information into an image to be interpreted
by the radiologist.
- It will be important for you to stay very still during the scan. You may be asked
to hold your breath for a short time at various times during the scan.
- If contrast dye is used, you will be removed from the scanner after the first set
of scans has been completed. A second set of scans will be taken after the contrast
dye has been given.
- If contrast dye is used, you may feel some effects when the dye is injected into the
IV line. These effects include a warm flushing sensation, a salty or metallic taste
in the mouth, a brief headache, and/or nausea. These effects usually only last for
a few moments.
- Tell the technologist if you feel any breathing difficulties, sweating, numbness,
or heart palpitations.
- When the procedure has been completed, you will be removed from the scanner.
- If an IV line was inserted, it will be removed.
- You may be asked to wait for a short period while the radiologist examines the scans
to make sure they are clear.
While the CT procedure itself causes no pain, having to lie still for the length of
the procedure might be uncomfortable, particularly if you’ve recently been injured
or had surgery. The technologist will use all possible comfort measures and complete
the procedure as quickly as possible to reduce any discomfort or pain.
What happens after a CT scan of the bones?
If contrast dye was used, you may be watched for a time for any side effects or reactions
to the contrast dye, such as itching, swelling, rash, or difficulty breathing. Tell
the radiologist or your healthcare provider right away if you notice any of these
If you notice any pain, redness, and/or swelling at the IV site after you go home,
tell your healthcare provider. This could be a sign of infection or other type of
Otherwise, there is no special type of care needed after a CT scan of the bones. You
may go back to your usual diet and activities unless your healthcare provider tells
Your healthcare provider may give you other instructions after the procedure, depending
on your particular situation.
Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:
- The name of the test or procedure
- The reason you are having the test or procedure
- What results to expect and what they mean
- The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
- What the possible side effects or complications are
- When and where you are to have the test or procedure
- Who will do the test or procedure and what that person’s qualifications are
- What would happen if you did not have the test or procedure
- Any alternative tests or procedures to think about
- When and how will you get the results
- Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or problems
- How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure