What Is a Cervical Spine CT Scan?
A cervical spine CT scan is a medical procedure that uses specialized
X-ray equipment and computer imaging to create a visual model of your cervical
spine. The cervical spine is the portion of the spine that runs through the
neck so the test may also be called a neck CT scan. Your doctor may order this
test if you’ve recently been in an accident or if you’re suffering from neck
Reasons for Having a Cervical Spine CT Scan
The most common reason for a spinal CT scan is to check for injuries
after an accident. The exam can help your doctor accurately diagnose potential
injuries to this specific area of your spinal column. However, your doctor may
also order the test to investigate:
- herniated discs, which are the most common cause
of back pain
- birth defects of the cervical spine in children
- tumors that may have started in the spine or somewhere
else in the body
- broken bones or areas of potential instability
- infections involving the cervical spine
It can also provide important information if you have certain
bone diseases, such as arthritis or osteoporosis,
by measuring your bone density. This can help your doctor determine the
severity of your condition and identify any weakened areas that should be
protected from fractures.
If your doctor is doing a biopsy (tissue removal) or removing
fluid from an infected area in your cervical spine, they may use a CT scan of
your neck as a guide during the procedure.
A CT scan of the neck may be done along with other tests, such as
MRI scans or X-rays.
How Does a Cervical Spine CT Scan Work?
A regular X-ray directs a small amount of radiation into your
body. Bones and soft tissue absorb radiation differently, so they show up in
different colors on the X-ray film. Bones appear white. Soft tissues and organs
appear grey, and air appears as a black area. A CT scan functions in a similar
way, but instead of one flat image, many X-rays are taken in a spiral. This
provides more detail and accuracy.
Once you’re inside the scanner, multiple X-ray beams move around
your upper torso and neck in a circular motion while electronic X-ray detectors
measure the radiation your body absorbs. A computer interprets that information
to create separate images called “slices.” These are then combined to create a 3-D
model of your cervical spine.
How Is a Cervical Spine CT Scan Performed?
A CT scan takes about 10 to 20 minutes.
In some cases, you’ll need to have an injection of contrast dye.
This will help your doctor to see certain areas in your body clearly. If your
test requires dye, you’ll receive it through an intravenous line or through an
injection near your spinal cord. A nurse will inject the dye before the test
Once you’re ready, you‘ll lie on an examination table (usually on
your back) that slides into a tunnel at the center of the CT scanner. Then, the
table will move slowly through the scanner while the X-ray beams record images.
Any movement you make while you’re inside the scanner can affect
the CT images. You’ll need to stay still during the exam so that the images
will be as clear as possible. A pillow and straps will sometimes be used to
help you stay in place.
If you know you that have a hard time staying still or if you’re
claustrophobic, you may want to ask your doctor for a sedative. This usually
isn’t necessary because the exam is very brief.
While the scan itself is painless, you may notice some odd
sensations, such as warmth in your body or a metallic taste in your mouth immediately
after receiving the contrast dye. That should fade within a few minutes.
How to Prepare for a Cervical Spine CT Scan
If your exam involves the use of contrast dye, you’ll need to
make certain preparations. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have allergies,
diabetes, or any history of kidney disease. In rare cases, people have an
allergic reaction to the dye. It can also cause a negative reaction if you take
certain drugs to treat diabetes.
You shouldn’t eat or drink for four to six hours before your scan
if you’re receiving contrast dye.
It’s usually recommended that CT scans not be performed during
pregnancy unless the benefits of the scan outweigh the risks. If you’re
pregnant, you’ll need clearance from your doctor before having this exam.
You’ll need to take off any metal objects, which may affect your
CT scan. These include:
- hearing aids
- removable dental work
Some machines have a weight limit. You should let your doctor
know if you weigh more than 300 pounds.
What Are the Risks of a Cervical Spine CT Scan?
As with any procedure involving exposure to radiation, there’s a
very slight risk of developing cancer from a CT scan. However, the exposure
from any single scan is very low.
You should discuss your concerns with your doctor, particularly
if you’re pregnant. The benefits of diagnosing a serious cervical spine problem
outweigh any risk from the radiation exposure.
Most patients have no issues with the contrast dye. For those who
are allergic to the iodine that’s commonly used in the dye, side effects may
include nausea, vomiting, or hives. Reactions more serious than that are
What Happens After a Cervical Spine CT Scan?
After the test, you can go about your day as you normally would.
If contrast dye was used during the test, make sure to drink a lot of water to
help flush the chemicals from your body.
Results from your CT scan may be available within 48 hours. Your
doctor will review the images and determine how to proceed. Depending on your
results, they may order additional imaging scans, blood tests, or other
diagnostic measures to help get an accurate diagnosis.