When you seek emergency treatment for an illness or accident, your doctor may order an imaging test. Imaging tests examine the structures of your body and look for abnormalities such as broken bones, bleeding, organ dysfunction, or tumors.
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Why it’s necessary
Emergency testing is used to help emergency care providers diagnose urgent health conditions as quickly as possible.
If you go to the emergency room, or your doctor suspects that you are experiencing a life-threatening condition such as a heart attack, stroke, severe injury, severe infection, or aneurysm, emergency testing is the fastest way to rule out these conditions. The emergency room often functions as a diagnostic testing center, in which doctors identify conditions and direct future care.
Before undergoing testing, you may be asked to recount your symptoms, how long you have experienced them, and other details of your medical history. This will help your doctor decide on the best course of action going forward.
Emergency and radiology departments use imaging tests to diagnose the following conditions:
- Chest emergencies: chest pain, collapsed lung, pulmonary embolism, and breathing problems
- Abdominal emergencies: appendicitis, kidney stones, and bowel obstructions
- Internal injuries: organ injury, including a ruptured spleen
- Traumatic injuries: fractures, spine injuries, and head and neck injuries
- Aneurysms: brain aneurysms and aortic aneurysms in the abdomen or chest
- Blood clots: clots that cause pulmonary embolism (blood clot in an artery going to lung) and stroke (blood clot in an artery going to the brain)
- Infections: abscesses and infected gallbladder
- Internal bleeding: hemorrhagic stroke and bleeding due to trauma
At Dignity Health, we offer emergency radiology and diagnostic testing services, including:
- X-rays use a minimal amount of ionizing radiation to generate a still image of a structure or organ.
- Ultrasound uses sound waves to create a moving picture of a structure or organ, such as a beating heart.
- CAT (computerized axial tomography) or CT (computed tomography) scan takes specialized X-rays from multiple angles and converts them into a detailed, three-dimensional (3D) image.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses a large magnet and other technology to generate a 3D image. No ionizing radiation is used during MRI.
Imaging studies are painless and considered noninvasive. You may have a small needle stick into a vein though, if your doctor requests imaging with intravenous (IV) contrast, which helps produce more precise images. This can very rarely result in complications, such as pain or swelling at the injection site. If you have an allergy to one of the dye materials, this can also lead to allergic reactions, though it’s very rare. If you have experienced an allergic reaction to medical testing in the past, be sure to tell your doctor.
Some scans use tiny amounts of radiation. A small amount of radiation exposure is normal. For example, sunlight and the air already expose us all to low levels of radiation every day. These tests are typically considered very safe for adults but can be dangerous for unborn babies who are still developing. If you are pregnant, or there’s any chance you might be pregnant, make sure to tell your doctor as soon as possible.
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.