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November 26, 2021 | Farah Jassawalla

Cervical Spine CT Scan: Purpose, Procedure, and Risks

The cervical spine is the part of the spine that runs through the neck. It consists of the seven smallest vertebrae, which are located in the uppermost section of the spinal column. The vertebrae support the skull, protect the spinal cord and move the spine. 

The cervical spine CT scan is also known as a neck CT scan. A CT scan is a medical imaging procedure that uses specialized X-ray equipment and computer imaging to create an extremely detailed visual model of the cervical spine. The scan can be of two types, the CT cervical spine without contrast and one with contrast. 

What does the CT Scan of the Cervical Spine Show?

The doctor may order a CT scan of the cervical spine if the patient has recently been in an accident or has been suffering from neck pain. In general, the most common reason for ordering a CT scan of the cervical spine is to check for injuries after an accident. The CT scan can help the doctor diagnose any potential injuries to your cervical spine. 

Apart from assessing damage after an accident, the scan can also be ordered to investigate:

  • Birth defects of the cervical spine in children

  • Herniated disks which are the most common cause of back pain

  • Tumors that originate from the spine or that have occurred in other places in the body

  • Broken bones

  • Areas of potential instability

  • Infections in the cervical spine or infections that involve it

Additionally, a scan of the cervical spine can provide crucial information if the patient has conditions involving the bone, such as arthritis and osteoporosis. The scan measures bone density which can help the doctor identify how severe the condition is. It can also highlight any weakened areas that should be protected from fractures. 

Furthermore, if the doctor is doing a biopsy or removing some fluid from an infected area in the cervical spine, they may order a CT scan of the neck so that they can use it as a guide during the procedure. 

Sometimes, the CT Scan is done with other imaging tests like X-rays or MRIs. 

The Procedure of a Cervical Spine CT Scan 

CT scans work in a similar fashion to X-rays. A basic X-ray directs a minuscule amount of radiation towards the body, and since bones and soft tissues absorb radiation differently, they appear on the film differently. CT Scans, unlike X-rays, aren’t flat images, they consist of many X-rays taken in a spiral which lends the image more depth, detail, and accuracy. 

When the body is shifted into the scanner, various X-ray beams spiral around the upper half of the body, and neck while the X-ray detectors measure the amount of radiation the body absorbs. The computer creates slices of the interpreted information, which are then combined to make a 3-D image of the cervical spine. 

In general, a CT scan takes between 10 to 20 minutes. If the doctor has ordered a CT scan with contrast, it can take longer. Contrasts help the doctor see the images much more clearly. It is either administered intravenously or through an injection near the spinal cord. It is injected before the test begins. 

Once it has been injected, you are asked to lie down flat on your back on the scanning table, and it is slid into the center of the machine. When the scan starts, the table moves slowly through the scanner so that the X-ray beams can record images. 

It is imperative that you lie still in the scanner as any movement made affects the images. The scan itself is a painless procedure, but you may notice some odd sensations such as a metallic taste in your mouth after receiving a contrast dye or feeling some warmth in the body during the procedure. 

Risks

You should ask your doctor about the amount of radiation used during the procedure and any risks related to your condition. You should keep a record of your past history of radiation exposure, such as previous scans and other imaging tests like X-rays so you can inform your doctor of them. The risks of radiation exposure can be related to the number of X-ray examinations conducted with time, as well as other radiation-centered therapies you have undertaken. 

If you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant, you should inform the doctor beforehand. Radiation exposure during pregnancy can lead to birth defects in your child. However, if you must get a CT scan of your spine done, the doctor will take special measures to make sure that radiation exposure to the fetus is minimized. On the other hand, nursing mothers should wait for 24-hours after getting contrast dye to resume breastfeeding. 

 

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Farah Jassawalla

Farah Jassawalla is a graduate of the Lahore School of Economics. She is also a writer, and a healthcare enthusiast, having closely observed case studies while working with Lahore's thriving general physicians at their clinics.