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Medical imaging is a historical breakthrough that single-handedly changed the medical field for the better. It started in 1895 when Professor Wilhelm Rӧntgen was conducting an experiment using a cathode ray generator — a machine that deflected a focused beam of electrons to render an image on the screen. It wasn’t until after the initial project was completed when he discovered an image leftover from when the cathode rays came into contact with the generator.
In this image, he was able to see through the skin and straight to the bones. Because this wasn’t the intent of the project, it resulted in Rӧntgen accidentally discovering the very first X-ray.
Since then, the world of medical imaging has evolved immensely. In the 1960s scientists discovered ultrasounds and utilized them during World War II. In 1972, the CT machine was invented by British engineer Godfrey Hounsfield.
As technology continued to develop, so did medical imaging. As of 2021, there are over 10 different types of medical imaging used in medical practices today. Because the field is so elaborate, those interested in the history and implementation of radiographic sciences may choose a career that allows them to explore their interests even further. Throughout the rest of this article, you will find the different types of medical imaging used today and the many positions that make up each field.
Each type of medical imaging plays a significant role. Here’s a closer look at what each type is, how it works, and who it’s designed to help.
An arthrogram is a medical imaging procedure that involves a medical-grade dye (contrast) being injected into the joint. This contrast is used to help highlight the specific area within the joint that may require medical attention. The arthrogram itself isn’t a medical imaging device. Rather it is used alongside other types of imaging devices like an X-ray, CT scan, MRI, or fluoroscopy. The technicians in the department requesting the arthrogram are the ones who administer the contrast. For instance, if a patient requires an MRI with contrast, then the MRI technician has to administer the dye.
This procedure is most common for patients who have severe joint pain in their:
Medical providers may request an arthrogram if they suspect a ligament tear, joint damage, or to check on a previous joint replacement. Common risks associated with arthrograms include:
Because of these risks, healthcare providers must ensure their patient isn’t pregnant, allergic to dyes or iodine, has no bleeding disorders, and is aware of any medications/drugs they may be taking.
A computer tomography scan, commonly known as a “CT” or “CAT scan,” is a more in-depth version of an X-ray machine. CT machines use computer technology, alongside X-ray imaging, to get a picture of a patient’s bones, organs, and tissue.
During a CT scan, patients are instructed to lay down on a narrow table and are then slid into a doughnut-shaped machine. From there, an X-ray beam will rotate around the part of the body that is being scanned. The rotation of the X-ray arm allows technicians to get various images of the same injury from different angles. These scans are conducted by CT-certified medical imaging technicians.
Doctors may choose to have a CT scan performed on a patient for various reasons, like to:
Areas that are often scanned during a CT include the:
Doctors may choose to order a CT scan with or without contrast. Similar to an arthrogram, a CT scan with contrast uses a dye to highlight the area being scanned.
Fluoroscopy is a study that captures movie-like footage of moving body structures. Hopkins Medicine describes fluoroscopy as a “beam [that] is transmitted to a TV-like monitor so that the body part and its motion can be seen in detail.”
Fluoroscopy is used for many exams, including:
Hopkins Medicine mentions that fluoroscopy procedures can also be used for:
Just as with any medical imaging scan, if the patient is pregnant or allergic to dye, they will need to consider alternative options.
A magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI) is a combination of a powerful magnet, computer, and radio waves. It is primarily used to look at the nervous system and soft tissue. Similar to a CT machine, an MRI machine requires patients to lay on a table that is then slid into a doughnut-shaped machine. MRI machines are louder than other imaging devices, so patients will receive headphones or earplugs to help block out the sounds.
Doctors will use the results of an MRI to diagnose an internal injury or disease like:
Because an MRI machine is essentially a giant magnet, patients must remove the following before entering the imaging room:
It is important to note that patients with any type of implanted medical device — such as heart monitors, pacemakers, stents, artificial heart valves, screws, pins, metal clips, plates, infusion pumps, etc. — inform their MRI technician ahead of time of these devices. The MRI machine can damage and/or turn off the device without special attention and/or alternative processes.
Mammography is a department within medical imaging that is specifically for breast imaging. Mammography technicians will use a low-dose x-ray to detect any signs of breast cancer in both males and females. The mammography machine is made up of two square plates that sit on each side of the breast, pressing together and flattening it out to get a clear image of the tissue.
Doctors will have their female patients ages 45 or older get a mammogram once a year. Otherwise, they will suggest their patient (regardless of gender) receive a mammogram if there is any sign of breast cancer.
A myelogram is “an imaging procedure that examines the relationship between your vertebrae and discs, through your spinal cord, nerves, and nerve roots.” Because this is a more intricate and invasive procedure, it requires the help of the radiologist — rather than a medical imaging technician.
Before the procedure, a radiologist will inject the patient with a contrast dye into their spinal canal. Once the dye has fully settled, the radiologist will either do an X-ray or a CT scan.
These procedures are done to help narrow in on what may be causing any nerve damage, numbness, or weakness in the arms and legs. They can detect:
The risks associated with a myelogram include, but aren’t limited to:
If the patient has any of the above symptoms, they should speak with their healthcare provider immediately.
Nuclear medicine is a form of medical imaging that uses small doses of radioactive materials (radiopharmaceuticals) to examine the function and structure of a patient’s organs. The purpose of nuclear medicine is to help diagnose and treat early signs of diseases, like thyroid cancer.
Molecular imaging is similar to nuclear medicine in the sense that it uses small amounts of radioactive materials to diagnose and treat diseases. It differs from nuclear medicine by measuring the body’s biological and chemical processes, rather than the structure of the patient’s organs.
According to information compiled from SNMMI fact sheets, molecular imaging and nuclear medicine can:
Both scans are non-invasive and painless for the patient.
Like nuclear medicine and molecular imaging scans, a positron emission tomography (PET) scan helps identify the current functionality of a patient’s tissues and organs. The difference between a PET scan and the others is that a PET scan uses a radioactive drug called a tracer to highlight the specific areas of the organs and tissue. How the tracer is given depends on the organ/tissue that is being observed. It can be inhaled, injected, or swallowed.
A PET scan machine is similar to a CT scanner — they both resemble a doughnut. They’re so similar that some facilities may have a combined CT-PET scanner. A PET scan is most often used to reveal medical conditions like cancers, heart disease, and brain disorders.
While this isn’t a type of medical imaging, it is still a profession within the medical imaging department. Radiologists are the doctors of the imaging department. They assist with contrast injections, inject patients for myelograms, read the images for the results, and much more.
Radiologists dedicate around nine years of their lives in school and four years in a residency program. Some may even choose to attend additional school if they desire to obtain special certifications in areas like emergency radiology or breast imaging.
Ultrasound imaging (also referred to as sonography), “is an imaging method that uses high-frequency sound waves to produce images of structures within your body.” There are many reasons why a patient may need an ultrasound, including to:
Ultrasound technicians will apply a gel to the area being examined to help prevent air pockets in the imaging. The technician will then maneuver the transducer — the hand-held device that captures the images — around until they get the image they’re looking for. They can tell whether or not the image is adequate because it is transmitted directly onto a monitor.
An X-ray is a type of imaging that captures images of inside the body — specifically the bones. X-ray beams “pass through [the] body, and they are absorbed in different amounts depending on the density of the material they pass through.”
The purpose of an X-ray is to identify dense materials — like bones, metals, and foreign objects — in the body. However, this doesn’t mean that other findings like air in the lungs, fat, and muscle aren’t visible.
X-rays can be done for many reasons. For example, a doctor may instruct their patient to get an X-ray if they have:
This type of imaging is conducted by X-ray technicians. It is quick and painless with few risks. If the patient is pregnant or allergic to contrast, then they will want to be sure to bring these concerns to their technician immediately.
There are a certain set of skills and personality traits that prospective medical imaging professionals should have. Regardless of the area of expertise (i.e. X-ray, ultrasound, MRI, etc.), medical imaging technicians should be:
Some of the necessary skills include, but aren’t limited to:
Each position within the radiology department will require specific skills that are learned throughout schooling. These, in addition to the ones listed above, will help ensure the technician is fully capable of doing their job correctly and efficiently.
Depending on the area of study within medical imaging, prospective students will need to apply to an accredited program — whether it’s at a university, college, or online program. A certification or associate’s degree in medical imaging is enough to obtain a career in the field. However, if an individual desires more pay, they may choose to obtain a bachelor’s or doctorate degree. Examples of courses that medical imaging students must take include:
Once a student has completed the course prerequisites, they must then be accepted into an accredited program. From there, they will complete an adequate number of classes and hands-on training — also known as clinicals. It is important to note that each area of expertise will have requirements that other areas do not have. To get a better understanding of these specific requirements, students can speak with their advisors. These degrees can take anywhere from two to 13 years to complete, depending on the area of expertise and degree they’re achieving.
Some students know as early as the beginning years of high school that they want to be a medical imaging technician in the future. Because this is a field that requires a lot of hands-on experience, it is beneficial if those interested in the profession start building these experiences early on. While not all high schools offer courses that let students get these skills hands-on, there are still opportunities for them to obtain the other necessary skills mentioned above.
All high school classes are important to building a solid educational foundation. However, the ones that will pertain the most to medical imaging include:
Even classes in foreign languages can serve a purpose later on. Students are encouraged to use their high school years to develop other skills — like communicating, empathy, patience, and problem-solving.
If they attend a school that has relevant extracurriculars, then students should sign up for those as well. This includes:
If none of these clubs are available, then students could reach out to their principal to see what needs to be done to start them. Explaining how these clubs are beneficial to their future career path is a great start to pleading their case for the club.
Just because someone graduates with a degree in one area of expertise, doesn’t mean they’re stuck there forever. It’s rather common for professionals within the medical field to switch career paths a time or two. Before switching careers, it is important to:
If someone is already in the medical field, then chances are they’ve taken a handful of courses required to become a medical imaging technician. If they’re wishing to branch out of their current role, then they are encouraged to speak with an advisor from an accredited program. They will be able to tell them what steps they need to take next to continue down the path towards radiographic sciences.
One of the many benefits of being a medical imaging professional is having a variety of places of work to choose from. This includes:
Medical imaging is also a field that creates opportunities for technicians to travel around the world as traveling imaging techs. This is the perfect career path for those who have a shared love for medical imaging and traveling.
Each area will have its own average salary. Listed below are the different types of medical imaging technicians and their prospective average salaries:
Factors like location, level of education, and bonuses can contribute to how much a medical imaging technician earns on average.
There are various certifications and licenses needed for each area of expertise, including:
All areas also require that medical imaging professionals obtain an imaging license in the state in which they reside.
The cost of each program varies. It is safe to say that, just like with any career path requiring college, the cost of tuition may be too high for some. Luckily there are many scholarships and grants medical imaging students can apply for to help them pay for their studies. For example, students can apply for the:
Students are encouraged to check with their university/college to find out more about other scholarship opportunities.
Just like numerous other professions, medical imaging has a multitude of professional organizations and resources to help those in the field improve their skills.
Organizations are important in medical imaging because they help technicians grow both personally and professionally.
Medical imaging is a field that comes with risks, and it’s important to be educated on the different ways to stay safe while on the job. Here is a list of safety tips for medical imaging technicians:
Medical imaging is a field with major significance in healthcare. It’s a career path that is perfect for those who have a passion for helping others. Students with an interest in medical imaging are taking action to help ensure the well-being of those within their community.