While CT scans provide "beautiful 3-D pictures of the inside of the body," they also subject patients to a significant amount of radiation, which may boost the risk of future cancer, said the study's lead author Diana Miglioretti, a professor of biostatistics at the University of California, Davis, and a senior investigator at the Group Health Research Institute.
Between 1996 and 2006 CT scans in children under age 5 nearly doubled, while they almost tripled in kids aged 5 to 14 years, according to the report in JAMA Pediatrics. While the number of scans in children has declined since 2006, it's still much higher than in 1996.
While the researchers suspect many of those scans could be avoided, for some kids, like 5-year-old Dezhan Frajer, the clearer 3D images that come from CT are the only way to figure out what's wrong. Dezhan has been suffering from some complicated ear and eye symptoms, and his mom, Tamika is hoping his scans will explain what's going on.
CT scans are often used in kids when appendicitis is suspected or to rule out severe damage when children hit their heads hard or if there is concern that the spine has been injured. They are also used to diagnose brain tumors and other abnormalities.
CT scans became more popular because, "it is a great tool and is very sensitive and accurate," Miglioretti said.
Miglioretti and her colleagues scrutinized data from six large HMOs. Included in the study were data from 152,419 to 371,095 children each year. They found CT scan use jumped between 1996 and 2005, remained stable until 2007, and then started to decline.
Even with the decline, in 2010 scans were still being done at nearly two and a half times the rate of 1996 in children aged 5 to 14 and one-and-a-half times the 1996 rate in children under age 5.
Image: Pediatric CT scan, via Shutterstock