May 12, 2011, Updated September 12, 2012

Tests that use radiation are always less desirable than those that don’t. And so when it comes to diagnosing head and neck ailments, the use of CT and MRI scans – which use potentially dangerous amounts of radiation – can actually harm more than they help. Now a Tel Aviv University researcher says that inexpensive and radiation-free ultrasound can produce the same results.

In his study, Dr. Michael Vaiman of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine compared the efficacy of CT versus ultrasound scans for locating vertebral arteries in the throat, an important assessment that must be completed before a surgeon operates in the neck area of the body. After comparing the outcomes of 250 CT scans with 500 ultrasound images, he concluded that there is no advantage to using CT scans for most of these procedures, especially those that are used to locate anomalies in the neck to map major arteries before surgery can take place.

“I would recommend the use of ultrasound scans, and not radiating CT scans, for most procedures,” said Dr. Vaiman, who stressed that an ultrasound does not require injection of radioactive contrast material and has no side effects. “I would especially recommend ultrasound when children are investigated. There are some tumors that do require CT or MRI investigation, but these cases are rare. When in doubt, and high-resolution imaging is necessary, I would suggest a low-radiating MRI.”

Traditionally, doctors have relied on CT scans to find neck arteries and assess neck tumors, enlarged lymphatic nodules, diseases of the salivary glands, different kinds of bronchial cysts, or the development of thyroid cancer.

Although ultrasound is not the investigation of choice for all neck pathology, Dr. Vaiman said it is adequate for diagnosis and assessment of treatment options for most of these conditions. Ultrasound cannot only locate a lesion, it can provide information about its size, consistency, and relation to other organs, as well as other features.

Vaiman’s findings follow warnings from international health organizations about the dangers of overexposure to CT-related radiation. Some medical experts caution that patients are exposed to too many CT scans, and the results could be harmful to their health. For example, excessive radiation can itself lead to cancerous growths.

“Preoperative ultrasound investigation allows a very precise identification of abnormal vertebral arteries,” he said. “I believe that radiation-free ultrasound investigation of blood vessels is as precise as CT 3D imaging, and should be used as an alternative in most cases.”

Dr. Vaiman’s results were published in the March issue of the European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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