Risk from CT scans -Best Data to Date

Thanks to Mike Hart for forwarding the following reference:

BMJ 2013; 346: f2360 doi: 10.1136/bmj.f2360

This study examines the risk of cancer among a cohort of nearly 11 million Australian children and adolescents since 1985.  Among this cohort, 680,000 (6.2%) pediatric patients were identified who had been exposed to a CT scan. This study was accomplished by analyzing CT scans funded by the Australian Medicare system which provides health services for all Australians.

One of the remarkable aspects of this study was the efforts the authors took to exclude reverse causation.  First of all, the data was analyzed with an exclusion period of a year “because of the possibility that the scan was part of the cancer diagnostic procedure…but we repeated the main analyses with lag periods of five and 10 years to explore the possibility of reverse causation.”  In addition, the authors analyzed all non-brain cancers in patients who had had cranial CT scans.  Despite all of the parameters, an increased risk of cancer was maintained among those who had prior CT and the risk was heightened by obtaining studies at younger ages and by having increased number of CT scans.

Key findings:

  • Almost 60% of CT scans were of the brain. Only 5% of CT scans were of abdomen or pelvis.
  • CT scan incidence increased over time.  Between 1985-89, 95,249 (14%) CT scans were ordered.  Whereas between 2000-2005, 266,971 (39%) were ordered.
  • The average CT dose was about 4.5 mSv per scan.
  • The increased relative risk (IRR) for brain cancers after a scan to a site other than the brain was 1.51 (confidence interval 1.19-1.91).
  • Each seivert (Sv) of effective dose was associated with 0.125 cancers; thus, by 2007, with average followup of 9.5 years, one cancer resulted from every 1800 CT scans.  This number is likely to climb with more time.
  • Among brain CT scans, the numbers are trickier due to the possibility of slow-growing tumors (which could trigger symptoms for imaging and still be difficult to detect).  However, up to one excess brain cancer would occur for every 4000 brain scans.
  • All solid cancers IRR 1.25, All lymphoid/hematologic cancers IRR 1.19, Brain cancers after CT IRR 2.44, Brain cancer after other scans 1.51.

There are several limitations to the study including the difficulty of knowing specific doses of radiation at various CT scanners, the possibility of CT scans funded outside the Australian Medicare system, or obtaining screening scans due to precancerous genetic conditions. Nevertheless, the magnitude of the cohort in this study along with its general agreement with a number of other studies provide ample evidence that these risks are real.

Take-home point: While CT scans have the potential for great benefits, they increase the risk of developing cancer; in many cases, an MRI or an ultrasound can provide similar information without this risk.  In this study, for lag (exclusion) period of one, five, and 10 years, the incidence rate for all cancers combined increased by 24%, 21%, and 18% respectively in the CT exposed group.  Eventual lifetime risk is likely to climb with longer followup.

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