Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scans use special X-ray equipment to take pictures of organs, bones, soft tissues and blood vessels. The pictures look like cross-sections or “slices” of the body. CT scans produce clearer and more detailed pictures than traditional X-rays.

CT scans help doctors diagnose and treat people who have hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain), spine disorders, brain injuries, tumors, and a wide variety of other conditions.

A CT scanner looks like a vertical inner tube or doughnut, with a long table that slides in and out of the center. A person’s position inside the machine depends on the body part that needs testing.

Before the Scan

Preparing at Home 

Parents can help children prepare for CT scans by helping them practice lying still for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. Parents also can help their children practice holding their breath for short periods. We sometimes ask patients to do this briefly when we take certain pictures.

Screening for Possible Pregnancy

Patients who are pregnant or who believe they could be pregnant should talk to their doctors before having CT scans. Information discussed with a doctor is confidential. In addition, parents or caregivers who are pregnant or believe they might be pregnant shouldn’t be in the room during a CT scan.

Female patients who are 12 and older must have a urine or blood pregnancy test before receiving sedation medicine and/or IV contrast dye, or if they are receiving radiation directed at their abdominal cavity (including their lower spine, hip, and pelvis).

Using Positive Distraction and Sedation Medicine

We help our patients relax by creating a soothing environment. We offer positive-distraction technology in our CT and fluoroscopy rooms. Positive-distraction technology uses lighting, music and videos to help patients relax during procedures and tests.

Some patients are unable to remain still for long periods of time. Others experience pain or anxiety during imaging scans. Some patients require sedation for imaging tests. Talk to your health care provider if you think this will be necessary.

Giving Contrast Dyes

For some CT scans, we give patients contrast dye by mouth or into a vein through an intravenous (IV) line. The patient must not eat or drink anything during the four hours leading up to the exam. That includes any solids or liquids by mouth and/or feeding tube. Patients who have ever had a reaction to contrast dye should tell their doctors. Patients who need contrast dye will receive a patient education handout about that.

During the Scan

Getting Into Position

We help patients get into position on the CT table. We place a wide strap across the waist to help reduce movement during the test. 

Minimizing Radiation Exposure

We perform CT scans thoroughly, while exposing patients to the smallest amount of radiation possible. Whenever possible, we’ll use a protective apron to cover parts of the body that don’t need scanning.

The Scan 

Once a patient is in position, the table slides into the CT scanner. We control the machine from another room, where we can see the patient and communicate back and forth with a two-way speaker.

The CT machine will make some humming and clicking noises during the scan. We ask patients to stay very still during the scan to make sure that we get clear pictures. At certain times, we might ask patients to hold their breath for a few seconds.

CT scans usually take about 10 to 15 minutes to complete, depending on the body part that needs testing.

Parent/Caregiver Role

The most important thing parents and caregivers can do is to help children stay calm during imaging scans. They can do this by staying calm themselves. Parents and caregivers also can prepare the patient for the scan by following the home-preparation tips discussed earlier in this piece.

In some cases, parents or caregivers can be with their children during a scan. We’ll provide anyone in the scan room with a protective apron to wear as a precaution. When a parent or caregiver can’t be in the room, a two-way speaker allows communication back and forth. It’s important, however, to avoid interfering with the instructions of the CT technologist.

When possible, parents can reassure children by talking to them, holding their hands and distracting them with familiar stories or thinking games (spelling, addition, etc.).

When the scan is finished, the table will slide out of the CT scanner. We’ll remove any straps or monitoring equipment.

Sedation Recovery

Patients who receive sedation medicine will go to the recovery area so that we can watch them until the medicine wears off. 

Receiving the Results

We’ll send the scan results to the doctor who ordered it — usually within 48 hours. If the results are urgent, we’ll contact the doctor immediately. Contact the doctor that ordered the scan to get the results.

For More Information

For more information about imaging tests at Gillette, please call the Advanced Imaging Center at 651-229-3995.

This information is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace the advice of your health care providers. If you have any questions, talk with your doctor or others on your health care team.