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CT, or computed tomography, is a non-invasive procedure that uses x-ray equipment and powerful computers to create detailed, cross-sectional images of your child's body.
A CT scan is:
How Boston Children's Hospital approaches CT scans
Computed Tomography (CT) at Boston Children's Hospital is dedicated to putting children of all ages at ease, as you'll see from the whimsical décor of our Fenway Park and beach-themed CT rooms in Boston and our skilled and child-centered staff at all locations. We are experts at keeping children comfortable and we encourage parents to be in the room during the scan. In addition, our powerful multidetector scanners minimize exam time, often eliminating the need to sedate your child.
Because CT technology uses ionizing radiation, we adapt our equipment and protocols to keep doses "child-sized." We work hard to keep doses as low as possible without compromising the image quality needed to make a correct diagnosis.
What is a CT scanner?
The CT scanner itself is a large machine that looks like a giant doughnut. Your child will lie still on a table that slides into and out of the opening while the machine takes pictures of the part of her body that is being investigated. Even though the machine is large and makes humming noises, it will not touch her during the scan.
How does a CT scanner work?
An x-ray tube on a rotating gantry within the "doughnut" emits controlled, narrow beams of X-ray radiation, which pass through the body and get picked up by an array of electronic detectors on the frame's opposite side. This produces many pictures in thin two-dimensional "slices" of the area under study. The slices are then assembled by a dedicated computer, which can if necessary compile them into detailed 3-dimensional images that can be studied from all angles.
Why might a CT scan be needed?
In children, CT is often used to investigate head injuries or acute neurological symptoms, evaluate chronic sinus symptoms or hearing loss, diagnose appendicitis, evaluate masses, detect fractures or help determine why a child has trouble breathing. Because it provides detailed views of many types of tissues, it's an excellent way to rule out disease and facilitate treatment.
Your child's doctor may have requested a CT scan to obtain specific diagnostic information that is not provided by or is complementary to other imaging technologies such as x-ray, ultrasound, nuclear medicine or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
In emergencies, a CT scan can quickly reveal internal injuries and bleeding, providing important information to the medical team that may prove life-saving.
How should I prepare my child for the CT scan?
The most important thing is to tell your child in simple terms why the test is necessary. You can explain that the CT won't hurt her and that the machine does not touch her body. If an IV is needed for the injection of contrast (the "dye" used to provide additional detail for some scans), or to provide sedation, your child may well feel discomfort from the needle. An option that is available for IV insertion is called a J-tip. A J-tip is used to numb the area before needle insertion. It is a syringe that has no needle but makes a popping sound to numb the area, similar to a can of soda being opened. The staff will give specific instructions when your exam is scheduled, but here are some general guidelines for CT scans without sedation:
What if my child can't lie still for the scan?
Because CT scans are generally quick — often less than 10 seconds — many children can hold still for the procedure. But depending on which part of the body is being scanned, the exam can take longer. Some types of scans are more forgiving of slight movements, while others require your child to be entirely motionless for a greater length of time. Depending on your child's age and other factors, sedation may be necessary.
What should I expect when I bring my child to the hospital?
The day of your child's exam, come to the Radiology suite on the second floor of the main hospital or on the first floor at our Waltham facility and check in at the front desk.
What happens during the procedure?
The technologist positions and secures your child on the movable bed that slides into and out of the CT scanner. At this point, the technologist may use a small needle to place an intravenous line into your child's hand or foot. There will likely be some brief discomfort when this is done.
The technologist then performs the exam according to the imaging protocol specified by the radiologist who is in direct contact with the radiologist at all times.
Can I stay in the room with my child?
Having a parent in the room during the exam can help reduce any anxiety your child might have. However, you cannot be in the room if you are pregnant. In this situation, please bring the other parent or a trusted caregiver.
How will I learn the results of my child's CT scan?
After the pediatric radiologist or pediatric neuroradiologist interprets the images, he will provide a written report to your child's doctor, who can then tell you the results. Results are typically reported within 24 hours; in urgent cases, our radiologists communicate immediately with the referring physician.
What are the risks of CT scans?
CT scans involve ionizing radiation as is used in conventional x-rays. In certain clinical situations, the benefits of an accurate diagnosis outweigh the risk of exposure to radiation during the exam. We calibrate our x-ray-based equipment and adapt protocols to deliver doses appropriate to children. The narrow beams of radiation used in CT, as well as protective shielding that prevents unnecessary radiation to sensitive tissues, also help limit radiation dose.
Sometimes, it is possible to reach a diagnosis by using imaging technologies that do not involve radiation: ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), for example. When appropriate, our radiologists will advise referring physicians that this is the safest course of action.
Department of Radiology
We are grateful to have been ranked #1 on U.S. News & World Report's list of the best children's hospitals in the nation for the third year in a row, an honor we could not have achieved without the patients and families who inspire us to do our very best for them. Thanks to you, Boston Children's is a place where we can write the greatest children's stories ever told.”