How To Prepare For Your Imaging Scan

  • Vanessa CrowleBachelor of Science - BSc Biomedical Science, Anglia Ruskin University, England

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Introduction

Are you going for an imaging scan? If so, you may be wondering what it involves and how to prepare for it. This article gives a brief overview of the different types of imaging scans and explains what preparation may be required.

Radiation-based imaging scans:

  • X-rays - commonly used to look at bones and joints1
  • CT - computerised tomography (CT) scans use X-rays and a computer to produce detailed images of the inside of the body2
  • MRI - magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans use radio waves and powerful magnets to create detailed images of almost any part of the body3
  • Angiography - a type of X-ray, using a special dye, that looks at blood vessels 
  • PET - positron emission tomography (PET) scans produce detailed 3D images of the inside of the body
  • ECG - an electrocardiogram (ECG) checks the heart’s rhythm and electrical activity by using sensors attached to the skin

Non-radiation-based imaging scans:

  • Ultrasound - high-frequency sound waves produce images of parts of the inside of the body
  • Echo - an echocardiogram (echo) is a type of ultrasound used to look at the heart and surrounding blood vessels

Knowing the distinctions between these various scans is key to proper preparation, ensuring that you follow specific guidelines related to the type of imaging scan that you will undergo.

Understanding your imaging scan

Purpose of the scan

Understanding the purpose of your imaging scan is a key factor when it comes to preparing for it. Imaging scans have a range of different purposes, from assessing the extent of injuries to detecting abnormalities within the body and monitoring the progression of a disease.4 Understanding the specific purpose of your imaging scan allows you to fully appreciate its vital role in providing valuable and accurate information to guide your healthcare team. 

Benefits and risks

Understanding the various benefits and risks regarding your imaging scan allows you to make informed decisions about your healthcare. 

Benefits 

  • Treatment planning: results provided by imaging scans guide healthcare professionals in developing tailor-made treatment plans that fit an individual patient’s needs5
  • Accurate diagnosis: imaging scans provide accurate and reliable results that play a key role in identifying and diagnosing various medical conditions
  • Non-invasive: in comparison to other diagnostic procedures, imaging scans are non-invasive, which not only reduces discomfort but also recovery time4

Risks

  • Allergic reactions: certain imaging scans, such as MRI and CT, use contrast agents that may trigger an allergic reaction6 
  • Exposure to radiation: various imaging scans, such as CT and X-rays, involve exposure to radiation. Whilst the doses are low, multiple repeated scans may result in adverse effects7
  • Pregnancy concerns: for individuals who are pregnant, there may be risks to the developing foetus. It is vital to inform healthcare professionals if there is a possibility of pregnancy8 

General preparation

Consultation with healthcare provider

When considering initial general preparation for your imaging scan the first stage begins with a comprehensive consultation with your healthcare provider.9 During this step, your healthcare professionals will begin by explaining the specific imaging scan that you will be undergoing, as well as offering an explanation of what to expect during the process.9 This discussion aims to alleviate any uncertainties or concerns you may have, as well as ensure your active participation in the process.9

Furthermore, your healthcare provider will also discuss your current health conditions and medical history to assess any factors that may impact your well-being during the procedure or the accuracy of the results.9 Open communication between you and your healthcare provider regarding medication, allergies and pre-existing conditions is essential in enabling your healthcare provider to tailor the imaging scan to your individual specific needs, ensuring both your safety and the accuracy of the results in the process. 

Scheduling and confirming the appointment

Once your healthcare provider has recommended an imaging scan that suits you, prompt scheduling ensures not only timely diagnosis but subsequent necessary medical intervention.10 Additionally, confirming the appointment in advance helps you to organise your schedule and also ensures that the healthcare professionals responsible for your imaging scan are adequately prepared for your visit.10 This is particularly essential for scans that require specific preparation, such as contrast agents or fasting. By scheduling and confirming your appointment, you can contribute to the efficiency of the healthcare system, resulting in a seamless and efficient imaging process.10 

Understanding fasting requirements

A key part of general preparation for particular imaging scans is understanding fasting requirements: 

  • Purpose: before certain imaging scans, such as an ultrasound or CT, fasting is often required to enhance the accuracy of the results by reducing any interference from ingested food2
  • Duration: depending on the specific imaging procedure, patients may be advised not to eat or drink anything for a specific period (ranging from 4-8 hours) before the scan4
  • Water Intake: most commonly, water is allowed during the fasting period to ensure that you stay hydrated12

Specific preparation for common imaging scans

MRI

Preparation for an MRI scan in particular involves careful consideration to ensure an effective yet smooth procedure:

  • Removal of metal objects: one of the main requirements for an MRI scan is ensuring that you have removed all metal objects (watches, piercings, clothing with metallic elements, and jewellery). Metal objects can interfere with the magnetic field and can compromise the quality of the scan3
  • Claustrophobia considerations: for individuals with claustrophobia it is important to be aware that MRI machines are often enclosed and can potentially trigger claustrophobic feelings3
  • Clothing selection: whilst patients are often provided with a hospital gown, it is advisable for them to choose clothing without any metallic elements, buttons or zippers on the day of the scan13

This preparation ensures both your comfort and safety during your MRI scan, as well as contributing to the overall success of the imaging process.

CT scan

There are several main preparations to consider when preparing for a CT scan, to optimise the imaging process:

  • Clothing choice: patients are advised to wear loose-fitting and comfortable clothing without any metal elements2
  • Hydration: patients are encouraged to maintain proper hydration before a CT scan
  • Fasting instructions: in specific cases, fasting may be required before undergoing a CT scan, therefore patients should adhere to specific fasting instructions provided by their healthcare professional2
  • Contrast agents: to enhance the visibility of specific blood vessels or tissues a contrast agent may be used. Before the scan, it is advisable for patients to inform their healthcare team about any allergies6

X-ray

To effectively prepare for an X-ray it is important to be aware of some considerations to optimise the procedure:

  • Clothing and accessories: patients undergoing an X-ray are advised to wear loose-fitting and comfortable clothing without any metal elements1
  • Pregnancy considerations: it is vital for patients to inform their healthcare professional if there is a possibility of pregnancy before an X-ray, as low-dose radiation can pose potential risks to a developing foetus1,8

By following these specific preparations you can ensure that your X-ray imaging scan provides valuable and accurate information for medical diagnosis whilst keeping you safe and comfortable.

Medication and health considerations

Ensuring an effective and safe imaging scan involves thorough consideration of health and medication factors. It is advisable that patients openly communicate with healthcare professionals regarding all medication (including supplements and over-the-counter medication) that is currently being taken.4 This information allows the healthcare team to make the necessary adjustments to the medication or imaging procedure, to ensure compatibility and to minimise any potential risks.4 

For patients with diabetes, specific instructions regarding oral medication or insulin adjustments may be given to help manage blood sugar levels during the scan. 

Furthermore, it is essential for individuals who may be pregnant to inform their healthcare team so they can assess the potential benefits and risks, as well as allow for alternative imaging methods to be considered that pose a minimal risk to the developing foetus.

This collaboration between you and your healthcare provider is crucial in allowing your healthcare team to tailor your imaging scan to your individual needs, prioritising the accuracy of the results and your safety and comfort.

Emotional and psychological preparation

It is vital to consider emotional and psychological preparation, especially managing stress and anxiety leading up to your imaging scan. It is completely normal to feel nervous regarding medical procedures, and open communication with healthcare professionals regarding your concerns is encouraged.1,2,3 

Techniques such as mindfulness exercises, visualisation or deep breathing are all very effective at reducing and alleviating anxiety before and during your imaging scan.14 Some imaging facilities may even offer calming environments or music, and open MRI options for individuals with claustrophobia.15 

Additionally, a full understanding of the duration of the procedure and what to expect can further contribute to emotional preparation.Through acknowledging and addressing emotional concerns, patients can enhance their overall experience during the scan, resulting in a more relaxed atmosphere for both the patient and the healthcare team. 

Summary

In summary, to effectively prepare for your imaging scan there are a series of key steps that can significantly impact your overall patient experience and the quality of the results. Understanding the specific requirements of your imaging scan, as well as adhering to fasting instructions and ensuring that you are removing any metal objects before your scan, are key crucial elements. Open, clear communication with your healthcare provider is equally important, including informing them about any emotional concerns, medication and allergies. By actively engaging in the preparation process, patients can ensure a supportive relationship with their healthcare providers, as well as contribute to the accuracy of the diagnostic results. 

References

  1. nhs.uk [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2023 Nov 26]. X-ray. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/x-ray/
  2. nhs.uk [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2023 Nov 26]. CT scan. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/ct-scan/
  3. nhs.uk [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2023 Nov 26]. MRI scan. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/mri-scan/
  4. Hussain S, Mubeen I, Ullah N, Shah SSUD, Khan BA, Zahoor M, et al. Modern diagnostic imaging technique applications and risk factors in the medical field: a review. Biomed Res Int [Internet]. 2022 Jun 6 [cited 2023 Nov 26]; 2022:5164970. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9192206/
  5. Medical imaging in personalised medicine: a white paper of the research committee of the European Society of Radiology (Esr). Insights Imaging [Internet]. 2015 Mar 13 [cited 2023 Nov 26];6(2):141–55. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4376812/
  6. Andreucci M, Solomon R, Tasanarong A. Side effects of radiographic contrast media: pathogenesis, risk factors, and prevention. Biomed Res Int [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2023 Nov 26];2014:741018. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4034507/
  7. Harvard Health [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2023 Nov 26]. Radiation risk from medical imaging. Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/cancer/radiation-risk-from-medical-imaging
  8. Yoon I, Slesinger TL. Radiation exposure in pregnancy. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Nov 26]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551690/
  9. Balogh EP, Miller BT, Ball JR, Care C on DE in H, Services B on HC, Medicine I of, et al. The diagnostic process. In: Improving Diagnosis in Health Care [Internet]. National Academies Press (US); 2015 [cited 2023 Nov 26]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK338593/
  10. Jessome R. Improving patient flow in diagnostic imaging: a case report. J Med Imaging Radiat Sci [Internet]. 2020 Dec [cited 2023 Nov 26];51(4):678–88. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7495148/
  11. Sondh RS, Mankotia R. Reducing prolonged fasting for abdominal ultrasound scans. BMJ Open Qual [Internet]. 2023 Aug 1 [cited 2023 Nov 26];12(3):e002396. Available from: https://bmjopenquality.bmj.com/content/12/3/e002396
  12. nhs.uk [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2023 Nov 26]. Ultrasound scan. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/ultrasound-scan/
  13. nhs.uk [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2023 Nov 26]. MRI scan - How it’s performed. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/mri-scan/what-happens/
  14. Call D, Miron L, Orcutt H. Effectiveness of brief mindfulness techniques in reducing symptoms of anxiety and stress. Mindfulness [Internet]. 2014 Dec 1 [cited 2023 Nov 26];5(6):658–68. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-013-0218-6
  15. Enders J, Zimmermann E, Rief M, Martus P, Klingebiel R, Asbach P, et al. Reduction of claustrophobia during magnetic resonance imaging: methods and design of the ‘CLAUSTRO’ randomized controlled trial. BMC Med Imaging [Internet]. 2011 Feb 10 [cited 2023 Nov 26];11:4. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3045881/

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Vanessa Crowle

Bachelor of Science - BSc Biomedical Science, Anglia Ruskin University, England

Vanessa is currently a masters student, completing her master’s degree in medical microbiology, alongside working as an experienced medical writer intern.

Vanessa’s master’s course focused on key areas of microbiology, with a central focus on patient diagnosis. Her research specialises in breast cancer treatment and antibiotic resistance and she looks forward to writing more about life and health sciences to help deliver knowledge to the general public.

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