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During the CT scan
During the procedure
Most CT scans are conducted as an outpatient procedure. Since they do not require hospitalization, the patient has the test and then goes home.
The CT scanner looks like a large donut with a narrow table in the middle. Unlike MRI, in which the patient would be placed inside the tunnel of the scanner, when undergoing a CT scan, the patient rarely experiences claustrophobia because of the openness of the doughnut shape of the scanner. Typically the patient lies on their back on the table, which moves through the center of the machine. The patient moves through the scanner either head first or feet first, depending on the part of the body being scanned. For certain scans such as sinuses and middle ear, the patient would lie on their stomach and go through head first.
The patient must remain motionless for the length of the study, which is typically just a few minutes. The entire procedure, which includes set-up, the scan itself, checking the pictures, and removing the IV if needed, takes 15 to 45 minutes depending on what part of the body is being scanned.
- For some studies, the patient will be asked to hold their breath for up to 20 seconds.
- No metal may be worn.
- What clothing the patient wears depends on the nature of the study. For a CT scan of the chest, abdomen, or pelvis, for example, usually the patient will change into a hospital gown. For a head CT scan, the patient can wear normal street clothes.
- Sedation is rarely necessary. The machine is quiet, so the patient hears during the test is a quiet whirr.
- The technologist is in the next room and can observe the patient through a large window.
After the procedure
If the patient received a contrast injection, the IV is removed from the arm before going home. There should be no ill effects from the scan or the contrast injection. In the rare circumstance that the patient received sedation, they will be sent home once they are awake and alert. However, someone will have to drive the patient home.
The CT scan is interpreted by a radiologist, a medical doctor trained to interpret various X-ray studies. The results are forwarded to the doctor. How soon the doctor receives the report depends on the imaging center where the study is performed.
When to seek medical care
The reaction to the contrast is almost always immediate, so it is very rare to have a reaction after the patient leaves the facility. However, if a patient thinks they are having a delayed reaction to the contrast, they should call the facility where they had the exam.
Symptoms include itching and difficulty breathing or swallowing. If contrast leaked under the skin, the patient should look for increased redness, swelling, or pain. Patients will often be asked to come back the next day so their skin can be checked. There are no side effects of the exam itself, but patients who have multiple CT scans should discuss the radiation exposure with their physician.