Radiology is the branch or specialty of medicine that deals with the study and application of imaging technology like x-ray and radiation to diagnosing and treating disease.
Radiologists direct an array of imaging technologies (such as ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), nuclear medicine, positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)) to diagnose or treat disease. Interventional radiology is the performance of (usually minimally invasive) medical procedures with the guidance of imaging technologies. The acquisition of medical imaging is usually carried out by the radiographer or radiologic technologist.
The following imaging modalities are used in the field of diagnostic radiology:
Projection (plain) radiography
Radiographs (or Roentgenographs, named after the discoverer of X-rays, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen) are produced by the transmission of X-Rays through a patient to a capture device then converted into an image for diagnosis. The original and still common imaging produces silver impregnated films. In Film - Screen radiography an x-ray tube generates a beam of x-rays which is aimed at the patient. The x-rays which pass through the patient are filtered to reduce scatter and noise and then strike an undeveloped film, held tight to a screen of light emitting phosphors in a light-tight cassette. The film is then developed chemically and an image appears on the film. Now replacing Film-Screen radiography is Digital Radiography, DR, in which x-rays strike a plate of sensors which then converts the signals generated into digital information and an image on computer screen.
Plain radiography was the only imaging modality available during the first 50 years of radiology. It is still the first study ordered in evaluation of the lungs, heart and skeleton because of its wide availability, speed and relative low cost.
Fluoroscopy and angiography are special applications of X-ray imaging, in which a fluorescent screen and image intensifier tube is connected to a closed-circuit television system. This allows real-time imaging of structures in motion or augmented with a radiocontrast agent. Radiocontrast agents are administered, often swallowed or injected into the body of the patient, to delineate anatomy and functioning of the blood vessels, the genitourinary system or the gastrointestinal tract. Two radiocontrasts are presently in use. Barium (as BaSO4) may be given orally or rectally for evaluation of the GI tract. Iodine, in multiple proprietary forms, may be given by oral, rectal, intraarterial or intravenous routes. These radiocontrast agents strongly absorb or scatter X-ray radiation, and in conjunction with the real-time imaging allows demonstration of dynamic processes, such as peristalsis in the digestive tract or blood flow in arteries and veins. Iodine contrast may also be concentrated in abnormal areas more or less than in normal tissues and make abnormalities (tumors, cysts, inflammation) more conspicuous. Additionally, in specific circumstances air can be used as a contrast agent for the gastrointestinal system and carbon dioxide can be used as a contrast agent in the venous system; in these cases, the contrast agent attenuates the X-ray radiation less than the surrounding tissues.
CT imaging uses X-rays in conjunction with computing algorithms to image the body. In CT, an X-ray generating tube opposite an X-ray detector (or detectors) in a ring shaped apparatus rotate around a patient producing a computer generated cross-sectional image (tomogram). CT is acquired in the axial plane, while coronal and sagittal images can be rendered by computer reconstruction. Radiocontrast agents are often used with CT for enhanced delineation of anatomy. Although radiographs provide higher spatial resolution, CT can detect more subtle variations in attenuation of X-rays. CT exposes the patient to more ionizing radiation than a radiograph. Spiral Multi-detector CT utilizes 8,16 or 64 detectors during continuous motion of the patient through the radiation beam to obtain much finer detail images in a shorter exam time. With rapid administration of IV contrast during the CT scan these fine detail images can be reconstructed into 3D images of carotid, cerebral and coronary arteries, CTA, CT angiography. CT scanning has become the test of choice in diagnosing some urgent and emergent conditions such as cerebral hemorrhage, pulmonary embolism (clots in the arteries of the lungs), aortic dissection (tearing of the aortic wall), appendicitis, diverticulitis, and obstructing kidney stones. Continuing improvements in CT technology including faster scanning times and improved resolution have dramatically increased the accuracy and usefulness of CT scanning and consequently increased utilization in medical diagnosis.
The first commercially viable CT scanner was invented by Sir Godfrey Hounsfield at EMI Central Research Labs, Great Britain in 1972. EMI owned the distribution rights to The Beatles music and it was their profits which funded the research. Sir Hounsfield and Alan McLeod McCormick shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1979 for the invention of CT scanning. The first CT scanner in North America was installed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN in 1972.
Medical ultrasonography uses ultrasound (high-frequency sound waves) to visualize soft tissue structures in the body in real time. No ionizing radiation is involved, but the quality of the images obtained using ultrasound is highly dependent on the skill of the person (ultrasonographer) performing the exam. Ultrasound is also limited by its inability to image through air (lungs, bowel loops) or bone. The use of ultrasound in medical imaging has developed mostly within the last 30 years. The first ultrasound images were static and two dimensional (2D), but with modern-day ultrasonography 3D reconstructions can be observed in real-time; effectively becoming 4D.
Because ultrasound does not utilize ionizing radiation, unlike radiography, CT scans, and nuclear medicine imaging techniques, it is generally considered safer. For this reason, this modality plays a vital role in obstetrical imaging. Fetal anatomic development can be thoroughly evaluated allowing early diagnosis of many fetal anomalies. Growth can be assessed over time, important in patients with chronic disease or gestation-induced disease, and in multiple gestations (twins, triplets etc.). Color-Flow Doppler Ultrasound measures the severity of peripheral vascular disease and is used by Cardiology for dynamic evaluation of the heart, heart valves and major vessels. Stenosis of the carotid arteries can presage cerebral infarcts (strokes). DVT in the legs can be found via ultrasound before it dislodges and travels to the lungs (pulmonary embolism), which can be fatal if left untreated. Ultrasound is useful for image-guided interventions like biopsies and drainages such as thoracentesis). Small portable ultrasound devices now replace peritoneal lavage in the triage of trauma victims by directly assessing for the presence of hemorrhage in the peritoneum and the integrity of the major viscera including the liver, spleen and kidneys. Extensive hemoperitoneum (bleeding inside the body cavity) or injury to the major organs may require emergent surgical exploration and repair.
MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
MRI uses strong magnetic fields to align atomic nuclei (usually hydrogen protons) within body tissues, then uses a radio signal to disturb the axis of rotation of these nuclei and observes the radio frequency signal generated as the nuclei return to their baseline states plus all surrounding areas. The radio signals are collected by small antennae, called coils, placed near the area of interest. An advantage of MRI is its ability to produce images in axial, coronal, sagittal and multiple oblique planes with equal ease. MRI scans give the best soft tissue contrast of all the imaging modalities. With advances in scanning speed and spatial resolution, and improvements in computer 3D algorithms and hardware, MRI has become a tool in musculoskeletal radiology and neuroradiology.
One disadvantage is that the patient has to hold still for long periods of time in a noisy, cramped space while the imaging is performed. Claustrophobia severe enough to terminate the MRI exam is reported in up to 5% of patients. Recent improvements in magnet design including stronger magnetic fields (3 teslas), shortening exam times, wider, shorter magnet bores and more open magnet designs, have brought some relief for claustrophobic patients. However, in magnets of equal field strength there is often a trade-off between image quality and open design. MRI has great benefit in imaging the brain, spine, and musculoskeletal system. The modality is currently contraindicated for patients with pacemakers, cochlear implants, some indwelling medication pumps, certain types of cerebral aneurysm clips, metal fragments in the eyes and some metallic hardware due to the powerful magnetic fields and strong fluctuating radio signals the body is exposed to. Areas of potential advancement include functional imaging, cardiovascular MRI, as well as MR image guided therapy.
Nuclear medicine imaging involves the administration into the patient of radiopharmaceuticals consisting of substances with affinity for certain body tissues labeled with radioactive tracer. The most commonly used tracers are Technetium-99m, Iodine-123, Iodine-131, Gallium-67 and Thallium-201. The heart, lungs, thyroid, liver, gallbladder, and bones are commonly evaluated for particular conditions using these techniques. While anatomical detail is limited in these studies, nuclear medicine is useful in displaying physiological function. The excretory function of the kidneys, iodine concentrating ability of the thyroid, blood flow to heart muscle, etc. can be measured. The principal imaging device is the gamma camera which detects the radiation emitted by the tracer in the body and displays it as an image. With computer processing, the information can be displayed as axial, coronal and sagittal images (SPECT images, single-photon emission computed tomography). In the most modern devices Nuclear Medicine images can be fused with a CT scan taken quasi-simultaneously so that the physiological information can be overlaid or co-registered with the anatomical structures to improve diagnostic accuracy.
PET,(positron emission tomography), scanning also falls under "nuclear medicine." In PET scanning, a radioactive biologically-active substance, most often Fluorine-18 Fluorodeoxyglucose, is injected into a patient and the radiation emitted by the patient is detected to produce multi-planar images of the body. Metabolically more active tissues, such as cancer, concentrate the active substance more than normal tissues. PET images can be combined with CT images to improve diagnostic accuracy.
The applications of nuclear medicine can include bone scanning which traditionally has had a strong role in the work-up/staging of cancers. Myocardial perfusion imaging is a sensitive and specific screening exam for reversible myocardial ischemia. Molecular Imaging is the new and exciting frontier in this field.
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Last Updated: Nov 7, 2013