Diagnostic imaging: Not just X-rays

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— Your physician just ordered an MRI. A friend is scheduled for a CAT scan. Your mom is getting a nuclear medicine study. You are probably not alone if you do not know what these terms mean. They reflect just a few of the important developments since the "X-ray" was discovered in 1895.

We asked Diagnostic Imaging Director Mary Jo Wiedel and staff radiologist J. D. Gilliland, M.D. for a brief introduction to some of the radiology services available at Yampa Valley Medical Center (YVMC).

The X-ray, a picture that resembles a film negative, is the oldest form of medical imaging. X-rays are commonly used to evaluate the extremities, chest, abdomen and spine. They help diagnose fractures, arthritis, pneumonia, heart disease and abdominal abnormalities.

"An X-ray may be the first or only image your doctor needs," Wiedel said. "This year YVMC converted from the traditional film format to a computerized digital system. These images can now be viewed simultaneously throughout the hospital as well as in your doctor's office. They can also be stored on a standard CD."

Fluoroscopy is a technique that produces high speed X-rays similar to a video recorder. It is used when the radiologist wants to view a process such as swallowing. Mobile fluoroscopy machines are used in the operating room, emergency room, and Pain Management clinic to allow physicians to monitor the course of procedures.

The CT or CAT scan (computed axial tomography) is a rotating computerized X-ray beam that creates thin cross-section images.

"They are literally used from 'head to toe' ' whether it be to evaluate head injuries, chest pain or an ankle fracture," Gilliland said. "Additionally, the recently purchased CT scanner at YVMC allows the region of the body being scanned to be viewed in a three-dimensional format."

An MR or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses a high-strength magnet and radio waves instead of radiation. Computer analysis of the information creates thin cross-section and 3-D images similar to those done by the CT scanner. It is especially effective in imaging the brain, spine, joints and soft tissues.

YVMC's MR equipment, staff and services are nationally accredited by the American College of Radiologists.

Ultrasound (or sonography) uses sound waves to provide "real-time" images of the heart and blood vessels, and internal organs such as the liver, kidneys and uterus. Because it does not involve the use of radiation, it is of particular benefit in monitoring the pregnancies of mothers-to-be.

Nuclear medicine studies involve the use of very low-dose radioactive particles. These studies are used to evaluate not only the appearance, but the function of organs including the heart, liver, kidney and musculoskeletal system.

"YVMC is continually investing in equipment updates, but technology is not the whole picture," Wiedel said. "The quality of these examinations also depends on a dedicated and experienced staff."

Each of these studies is performed by radiographers or sonographers who have had extensive specialized training and maintain a program of continuing education.

"Our service quality is definitely reflective of the fact that our staff are experienced professionals," Wiedel said. "Many of the specialties within diagnostic imaging require additional certification. For example, our sonographers are registered with the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography and the nuclear medicine coordinator is a Certified Nuclear Medicine Technologist."

The studies are interpreted by board-certified radiologists who work full-time at YVMC and are a part of a larger Denver-based radiology practice. This affiliation enhances the diagnostic capabilities of the department.

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed this list of diagnostic imaging services is incomplete. A more detailed focus on the women's imaging services provided by YVMC including mammography and bone densitometry-will be the subject of next week's Monday Medical column.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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