Radiologists specialize in diagnosing and treating injuries and diseases using images to evaluate the issues inside the body we cannot see with the naked eye. Radiology involves many modalities and procedures, from CTs to MRIs to mammograms, and there are various specialties in the field. Some radiologists primarily read and evaluate images while others perform complicated procedures using imaging techniques.
Diagnostic radiology allows radiologists to examine the internal structures of the body. These highly trained doctors analyze the images to determine the cause of a patient's symptoms, monitor how a patient is responding to treatment, or provide screenings for conditions like colon cancer, breast cancer, and heart disease.
Common exams used in diagnostic radiology include x-rays, fluoroscopy, CT, MRI, MRA, mammography, PET scans, ultrasound, and nuclear medicine. Each of these creates a unique image that tells the radiologist what is happening inside the body. Some only show bone, while others measure perfusion — the movement of fluids — or show detailed 3D images.
Radiologists practice interventional radiology when the images are used to guide minimally invasive procedures. The interventional radiologist inserts surgical tools into small incisions for treatment. These minimally invasive procedures provide less pain and risk and faster recovery than traditional surgery for conditions such as stroke, cancer, and heart disease.
Interventional radiology is the method of choice for procedures including stent placement, angioplasty, embolization, tumor ablation, needle biopsies, some back surgeries, and certain cancer treatments. This method is also used to insert ports and semi-permanent venous catheters for infusions and to place feeding tubes for long-term care management.
Mammography is an area of radiology specifically devoted to breast health. Digital mammography is the most common technique and allows the image to be captured, manipulated, and enhanced on a computer. Other imaging tools radiologists may use to diagnose and treat breast conditions include breast ultrasound, breast MRI, and image-guided needle biopsies.
Nuclear medicine is a highly specialized area of radiology that evaluates body functions. Special cameras track radioactive tracers that can diagnose heart disease, bone disorders, GI bleeding, gallbladder disease, and Parkinson's. PET scans are also used in nuclear medicine to detect cancer, and monitor how it responds to treatment and whether it has spread.
Another imaging technique used in radiology is ultrasound, a technique that uses high-frequency sound waves to create images. This test is perfectly safe and uses no radiation. A radiology technologist applies a water-based gel to the skin to help transmit sound waves and moves a transducer over the area being examined to capture the image.
A CT scan or computed tomography scan uses x-rays to create images of cross-sections of almost any part of the body, including the head, back, abdomen, and chest. These scans are fast and deliver quick images for evaluation. Some are completed in as little as 30 seconds.
MRI or magnetic resonance imaging uses strong magnets and radio waves to create detailed images of the body. Like CT scans, they can capture almost any body part, including the abdomen, back, head, neck, and brain. Sometimes, the patient is injected with a dye to help create clearer images. These scans take a lot longer than other types of radiology imaging, lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to multiple hours.
An MRA or magnetic resonance angiography is an MRI of the blood vessels. One advantage of an MRA over angiography — the X-ray method traditionally used for this purpose — is that an MRA is non-invasive. As with an MRI, the radiologist may first inject a dye into the veins to enhance the image. These scans also take a long time, typically no less than an hour.
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