Radiology Basics

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Overview of imaging modalities

ModalityTerminologyContrast mediumRadiationPrepContraindications/Problems
X-rayOpacity vs LucencyIodine (e.g. IV pyelogram)YesPregnancy (relative)
CTAttenuation/DensityIodineYesHydration (low eGFR)Renal impairment, Pregnancy (relative)
MRISignal intensityGadoliniumNoRemove piercingsMetals, Electronics, Claustrophobia
UltrasoundEchogenicityAir (‘microbubbles’)NoFull bladder (gynae scans)Body habitus, Operator skill
NuclearUptakeRadioactive labelled ‘tracer’YesPregnancy, Breastfeeding
FluoroscopyFilling defectBarium/Air/GastrografinYesNBM/Bowel prepPoor mobility

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X-rays, or plain films / plain radiographs, are used as a first-line imaging investigation in most situations due to their low radiation dose and easy availability.

Nuclear imaging measures the uptake of various labelled radioactive isotopes. Bone scans use an IV tracer that concentrates in areas of high bone activity, including inflammation and infection. They are mainly used to show bone metastases (multiple myeloma is an exception which may not show). Arthritis will also show as hot spots. The renal collecting system (kidneys and bladder) show high uptake as they excrete tracer.

Anterior and posterior images are taken. Other applications include V/Q scans and PET scans (PET-CT = PET overlaid over CT).

Fluoroscopy is the use of X-rays to obtain live moving images. Common uses include barium studies, angiography, and interventional procedures.

Barium studies:

  • Swallow = Oesophagus
  • Meal = Stomach
  • Follow-through = Small bowel
  • Enema (double-contrast if air is also used) = Large bowel

Interventional radiology performs procedures under imaging guidance. Examples include the insertion of PICC and Hickman lines. Foams and coils are used to embolise blood vessels that are bleeding or supplying a tumour. Biopsies are done under CT and ultrasound guidance. Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) which involves angiography and stenting is an intervention that is now being carried out by cardiologists.  Learn more about interventional radiology.

CT, MRI and Ultrasound are cross-sectional imaging modalities – these will be discussed further in the following pages.