Getting a full-body health scan sounds like a great way to detect potential problems before they become too serious. After all, early detection is the rationale behind blood tests for high cholesterol, mammograms for breast cancer, colonoscopies for colon cancer, and blood tests for other cancers. Companies such as Prenuvo offer a full-body health scan that can detect hundreds of different health conditions in the early stages, such as tumors and aneurysms (weakened arteries).
So if you have the money and are concerned about your health, why wouldn’t you spend $500 for a full-body CT scan or $2500 for a full-body MRI? Well, there are actually some good reasons not to do so, and some reasons why it could be a good idea.
Benefits and Risks
At the outset, there’s simply no evidence that the benefits of an MRI or CT scan outweigh the risks for people who show no signs of illness, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes. This benefit versus risk calculation is also why the American Cancer Society only recommends mammograms for women over 40, unless they are at increased risk. Mammograms use X-rays to detect breast cancer, and X-rays cause DNA damage that can increase the risk of developing cancer.
CT scans also use X-rays combined with computer technology to produce image “slices” of the inside of the body. When a CT scan is used as a whole-body scanner, it results in more X-ray exposure than a typical mammogram. For patients who are showing symptoms, CT scans can be used to detect various cancers and determine whether they have spread to other parts of the body. They can also detect a buildup of calcium in the arteries of the heart, blood clots and other abnormalities. The most detailed images may require patients to ingest special dyes or radioactive material, according to Choosing Wisely. CT scans are also used on trauma patients to detect broken bones or other internal injuries quickly.
Another type of body scanner is the MRI, which uses harmless magnetic fields and radio waves instead of X-rays, so there’s no increased cancer risk. This makes MRIs the preferred choice for people who need frequent imaging, according to the Cleveland Clinic. MRIs are also better than CT scans for providing clear images of soft tissues, such as the heart, liver, kidneys, spleen, brain, spinal cord, nerves, muscles, ligaments and tendons. While MRIs pose less risk than CT scans, there’s still the very real possibility of finding something unexpected that’s not causing any harm, which could lead to additional tests, biopsies and unnecessary treatments.
The Results Have Been Significant
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported on 2000 healthy volunteers between the ages of 45 and 97 who each underwent an MRI of the brain. A whopping 7.2% of participants showed evidence of a stroke, 1.8% had cerebral aneurysms (a weak spot in a brain artery), and 1.6% had non-cancerous tumors. None of these volunteers were showing any symptoms, and most would continue to be unaffected by anything detected in the MRI. It’s up for debate whether these MRIs provided any information that could benefit these patients. In a similar study, the British Medical Journal reported on 600 emergency room patients and found that one-third had abnormalities detected by CT scan that were unrelated to their emergency room visit.
MRI or CT scans may be beneficial for individuals at high risk of developing certain diseases. Studies are currently underway for patients at high risk of lung cancer or colon cancer, according to the FDA. For some women at high risk for breast cancer, MRIs are recommended in addition to mammograms. Reputable healthcare institutions do offer total-body CT scanning for high-risk patients working closely with knowledgeable physicians.
For example, the Cleveland Clinic offers total-body CT scanning to analyze three major areas of the body: the lungs (to detect potentially malignant nodules), the heart (to detect aortic aneurysms and calcium deposits within the coronary arteries) and the abdomen/pelvis (to detect kidney stones, cysts, enlarged lymph nodes, large abdominal/pelvic masses, fatty liver). So while full-body health scans aren’t recommended for everyone, anyone at high risk or with worrisome symptoms should — as always — contact a healthcare professional.
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