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What to Expect when Getting a CT (CAT) Scan

A Personal Story of What Happened During a CT Abdominal and CT Head Scan

With all the medical conditions from which I have suffered the past four years, one might think a CT scan would have been simple, but it wasn’t. When I shockingly gained sixty-five pounds in fewer than eleven days, my doctor (actually, a physician’s assistant, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll call her my doctor), well, she freaked. Her exact words were, “I know we’ve tried to avoid it because of money, but there’s no avoiding it; you need a CT.”

How much does a CT scan cost?

I’m a cash pay, with no insurance, so thus began the calls around to see where we could get the least expensive CAT or CT scan for my needs. The orders: CT-abdominal, with emphasis on the adrenal glands; CT-head, with emphasis on pituitary and hypothalamus. The final bill: a little under $800, plus the additional $125 for the office visit to read the results and follow up. Being sick isn’t cheap, let me tell you.

If you have insurance, and your doctor has properly documented the need for the CT, it’s likely your insurance, subject to deductible and network requirements, will cover at least part of the CT.

The Night or Morning before a CT Exam

Certain CT scans require a contrast agent, or a dye of some sort. My CT-abdominal required me to drink a liquid one hour before the exam. If you have time before the exam (I had to go the next morning after it was ordered the day before for an mild emergency situation), the doctor should prepare you for the exam by giving you the contrast solution to drink before coming to the office. I had to go into the office early to drink it, since my exam wasn’t schedule much in advance.

You will likely also be told not to eat or drink anything for a certain time period before the exam. For me, it was four hours. The drink was clear, with a slight light blue tint, and it was slightly oily and slightly sweet. It was not horrible, and yet, I still did not enjoy drinking it. It was likely the very least pleasant of all the things I had to do for the test.

How to Prepare for a CT Exam

Depending on the type of CT exam, that is, where it will be focused on the body, how to prepare will differ slightly. All CT exams require you to remove anything metal. Unlike an MRI, it’s not necessarily dangerous to have metal in a CT exam, but it can mess up the exam itself. No metal includes bras and underwires or metal stitching or weaving in the clothing.

If you can wear no metal, such as t-shirt dresses or cotton pants and a cotton shirt, it’s possible to receive a CT in your own clothing. Women, go without a bra, since you will be required to remove it, and wear a gown. If you can just go braless, you usually won’t have to even change clothes. I wore a pullover dress with a t-shirt top and brush cotton skirt and didn’t have to change into a gown.

Is a CT Scan Painful?

The CT scan itself is completely painless. It is also completely non-invasive. The only painful part of a CT scan is if your physician requires a CT with contrast, and then you will need an IV to inject the contrast solution. The solution is painless, though the technician during my exam says some people feel a slight burning sensation right at first.

Then, I felt a warm flush over me, down my legs, up into my chest, and then around my body. It was not unpleasant and in fact felt quite comforting to me. I was very cold in the exam room, so the warm flush from the iodine contrast IV was actually quite pleasant. It did, however, give me a bit of a headrush.

About the CT Scan Machine

The machine looks like a really large donut. It’s a big machine with a round hole in the center. There is a table that you will lay on and the table rises and lowers and then slides backward and forward so that you and the table move through the hole. Unlike an MRI machine, the CT machine is not a tube or a cylinder. It doesn’t touch you, and you are not encased in it.

The machine, however, is wide, so that when your head is underneath it, it can feel as though you’re encased in it. Someone who is very claustrophobic might feel slightly uncomfortable because of this, but the scan is very short, so the discomfort won’t last long.

Knowing What to Expect with a CT Exam

The only other thing you might want to know is that for some people the iodine contrast solution that is received by IV can cause lightheadedness or allergies. Those people might need someone to drive them home. If it’s your first CT exam and you don’t know how you will react, it’s best to take a friend or family member with you. Otherwise, for most people, a CT scan exam is very simple and takes very little time. Even a full body exam with contrast will last less than an hour and most specific body location exams only take about 15-20 minutes total.

If you’ve had experience with a CT exam and want to share it in the comments for other readers who are nervous about the test, please leave your responses by scrolling down to the comments below.

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