We’ve all heard of x-ray – most of us have encountered it at the dentist, in hospital, or even at the airport.
For a long time, x-ray has been used to look inside people’s bodies and diagnose illnesses and injuries. X-ray is still commonly used today, but advances in technology mean radiographers now have a range of imaging techniques at their disposal; they can choose the technique which is best suited to the medical situation.
BSc (Hons) Diagnostic Radiography at the University of Bradford introduces you to a range of potentially life-saving diagnostic imaging techniques, each of which has its own practical applications and considerations.
X-rays were discovered by German mechanical engineer Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895, while he was experimenting with a cathode ray tube. He found that his new ray was capable of penetrating most solid materials, but not bone or metal. The shape of bone could be projected using the rays, and then photographed, allowing doctors to see inside the human body without surgery.
Soon after, x-rays were first used for medical purposes on a Balkan War battlefield. Medics used them to locate bullets and broken bones in injured soldiers.
Nowadays, x-rays are used to examine most areas of the body and can detect a range of ailments including bone fractures, scoliosis, bone tumours, pneumonia and certain cancers.
Patients are sometimes concerned about the dangers of exposure to x-ray radiation, such as the risk of developing cancer. However, it’s thought that the risk of cancer after an x-ray is very small.
You’re probably aware of ultrasonography having had yourself, or heard people talking about, ultrasound scans during pregnancy. Ultrasound scans were first used clinically in the 1950s and are the preferred method for viewing a developing foetus. Ultrasound scans are also used to gain an internal view of many areas and organs in the body, such as the bladder, pancreas, liver, kidneys and eyes, to detect illness and injury. It also plays a pivotal role in abdominal imaging and muscular-skeletal imaging.
Ultrasound relies on soundwaves to create an image. A probe sends high-frequency soundwaves through a special gel into the body. As the soundwaves bounce back they are collected by the probe, which is then able to construct a real-time moving image for doctors to examine.
Unlike some imaging methods, ultrasound does not involve radiation and is considered completely safe.
Nuclear medicine has been used in hospitals since the 1950s, however, it’s not used in all hospitals and is not covered in as much detail as other methods on the course.
Nuclear scans are often able to detect diseases, particularly cancers, in their earliest stages, giving them an advantage over other imaging methods.
Before being scanned, patients consume a small amount of radioactive material, either through an injection, inhalation or a tablet. The material travels around the body and gives off energy in the form of gamma rays. A special gamma camera or scanner detects the rays in the area under examination and creates detailed images. Cutting-edge computer software can create 3D images with added colour, to give the doctor an even better view of the area.
Like x-ray, nuclear medicine involves exposing patients to very small amounts of radiation, which can cause concern for some. The dose is so low however, that nuclear scans are generally considered safe.
CT scans became widespread in hospitals in the mid-to-late 1970s. They’re pivotal for trauma imaging and urgent patient imaging. They can construct detailed cross-sectional images of areas inside the body, using a series of x-ray images to create a 3D image. CT scans have the advantage of being able to create very detailed images. Intravenous dye can be used to clearly visualise blood vessels within the body.
Patients having a CT scan are usually required to lie flat on a bed while being passed through the scanner. The scanner is sometimes referred to as a polo mint, due to its appearance. As the patient passes through the scanner, a ring rotates around them taking a series of images, which are then prepared and reconstructed by advanced computer software.
CT scans produce higher doses of radiation than a single x-ray. Radiographers are trained to ensure the dose is as low as possible while maintaining good image quality.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
After years of research and experimenting, MRI scans were rolled out for clinical use in the early 1980s. They were considered a significant development in understanding disease and are now widely used to identify a range of conditions.
MRI patients lie flat and still inside a large tube. Magnetic fields and radio waves are used to produce incredibly detailed images of the inside of the patient’s body. MRI scans are better equipped than some other methods to examine softer areas such as the brain, heart, blood vessels, muscles and internal organs.
MRI scans don’t make use of x-rays, which can be reassuring to some patients. Some can find spending time in the scanner to be uncomfortable though, especially those who suffer with claustrophobia. The patient and radiographer can talk throughout the procedure, which can last up to 90 minutes. This can help patients remain calm.
Our BSc (Hons) Diagnostic Radiography students will be introduced to each of these life-saving imaging methods throughout the course. You could then choose to specialise in one or more of them after graduation.
Interested in what you see? Check out our Diagnostic Radiography course page.