Head and Neck Computed Tomography Scan

A head and neck computed tomography (CT) scan is a noninvasive diagnostic procedure that uses multiple X-rays to create cross-sectional views of the head and neck areas. A CT scan of the head and neck enables a radiologist to see images of the neck, skull, brain, sinuses and eye sockets. A CT scan is painless, and its images are clearer and more detailed than those of a traditional X-ray.

Reasons for a Head and Neck CT

Head and neck CT scans are administered in order to examine more closely a suspected (or already diagnosed) abnormality. Head and neck CT scans are performed to discover or diagnose:

  • Congenital defects
  • Brain, pituitary or thyroid tumor
  • Injury to the head or the cervical spine
  • Stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA)
  • Abscess or infection
  • Aneurysm
  • Bleeding on the brain
  • Hydrocephalus
  • Sinus malformations

CT scans can also diagnose the cause(s) of symptoms that may or may not be related to brain damage or disease, including symptoms such as:

  • Cognitive or behavioral changes
  • Fainting or headaches
  • Some types of hearing loss
  • Visual difficulties
  • Muscle weakness or numbness

Other possible symptoms of damage to parts of the brain may include speech difficulties or swallowing problems, and they may be investigated through a CT scan.

The Head and Neck CT Procedure

Before a head and neck CT scan, patients may be asked to abstain from eating or drinking for several hours, especially if a contrast material is being used. Patients usually wear a hospital gown or loose clothing for a CT scan of the head and neck, and must remove all jewelry, eyeglasses and other metal accessories that might interfere with the results of the scan.

During the CT scan, the patient lies flat on an examination table, which moves through the scanner a number of times. The scanner captures individual X-ray images, called "slices," for viewing, examination and storage. The images may be stored as film slides or on a computer. A contrast material may be injected intravenously into the patient's hand or arm in order to provide even more precise images of the targeted area. The patient must hold still during most of the procedure and, at times, refrain from breathing, so that clear pictures can be obtained. The entire procedure usually takes fewer than 10 minutes.

Risks of a Head and Neck CT

CT scans are considered safe, but there are always some risks when patients are exposed to radiation. In most cases, the benefits of an accurate diagnosis outweigh the risks of radiation exposure. For the the majority of people, the contrast dye sometimes administered during a CT scan is not problematic, although it may cause side effects such as a sensation of warmth in certain parts of the body, or a metallic taste in the mouth. Rarely, a patient has an allergy to the dye, and special precautions must be taken. Some patients with diabetes may also require special precautions.

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