Medical Imaging


Medical imaging is often perceived to designate the set of techniques that noninvasively produce images of the internal aspect of the body. It is the techniques and processes used to create images of the human body for clinical purposes such as seeking to reveal, diagnose or examine injury, dysfunction or pathology.

As a discipline and in its widest sense incorporates radiology, tomography, endoscopy, thermography, medical photography and microscopy (e.g. for human pathological investigations).

In the clinical context, medical imaging is generally equated to radiology and the medical practitioner responsible for interpreting (and sometimes acquiring) the images is a radiologist. The radiographer or radiologic technologist is usually responsible for acquiring medical images of diagnostic quality, although some radiological interventions are performed by radiologists.

Radiographic Imaging

Radiography is the use of ionizing electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays to view objects. This imaging modality utilizes a wide beam of x rays for image acquisition and is the first imaging technique available in modern medicine. Various forms of radiographic images are in use in medical imaging.


Fluoroscopy produces real-time images of internal structures of the body in a similar fashion to radiography, but employs a constant input of x-rays, at a lower dose rate to provide moving projection radiographs of lower quality. Contrast media, such as barium, iodine, and air are used to visualize internal organs as they work. Fluoroscopy is mainly performed to view movement (of tissue or a contrast agent), or to guide a medical intervention, such as angioplasty, pacemaker insertion, or joint repair/replacement.  Fluoroscopy is also used in image-guided procedures when constant feedback during a procedure is required such as intraoperative and catheter guidance.

Angiography is the use of fluoroscopy to view the cardiovascular system. An iodine-based contrast is injected into the bloodstream and watched as it travels around. Since liquid blood and the vessels are not very dense, a contrast with high density (like the large iodine atoms) is used to view the vessels under X-ray. Angiography is used to find aneurysms, leaks, blockages (thromboses), new vessel growth, and placement of catheters and stents. Balloon angioplasty is often done with angiography.

Fluoroscopy can be used to examine the digestive system using a substance which is opaque to X-rays, (usually barium sulfate or gastrografin), which is introduced into the digestive system either by swallowing or as an enema. This is normally as part of a double contrast technique, using positive and negative contrast. Barium sulfate coats the walls of the digestive tract (positive contrast), which allows the shape of the digestive tract to be outlined as white or clear on an X-ray. Air may then be introduced (negative contrast), which looks black on the film.

Projectional Radiography

Projectional Radiography, more commonly known as x-rays, are often used to determine the type and extent of a fracture as well as for detecting pathological changes in the lungs. With the use of radio-opaque contrast media, such as barium, they can also be used to visualize the structure of the stomach and intestines

Dual energy X-ray absorptiometry

Dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (or DEXA, or bone densitometry) is used primarily for osteoporosis tests. It is not projection radiography, as the X-rays are emitted in 2 narrow beams that are scanned across the patient, 90 degrees from each other. Usually the hip (head of the femur), lower back (lumbar spine) or heel (calcaneum) are imaged, and the bone density (amount of calcium) is determined and given a number (a T-score). It is not used for bone imaging, as the image quality is not good enough to make an accurate diagnostic image for fractures, inflammation etc. It can also be used to measure total body fat, though this isn't common. The radiation dose received from DEXA scans is very low, much lower than projection radiography examinations.

Computed Tomography (CT)

Computed Tomography (CT) or CT scan (previously known as CAT scan, the "A" standing for "axial") uses a high amount of ionizing radiation (in the form of X-rays) in conjunction with a computer to create images of both soft and hard tissues.  It is a helical tomography which traditionally produces a 2D image of the structures in a thin section of the body.  These images look as though the patient was sliced like bread (thus, "tomography"-- "tomo" means "slice").  It has a greater ionizing radiation dose burden than projection radiography; repeated scans must be limited to avoid health effects.    Contrast agents are often used, depending on the tissues needing to be seen.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Magnetic resonance imaging employs a scanner that uses powerful magnets to polarise and excite hydrogen nuclei (single proton) in water molecules in human tissue, producing a detectable signal which is spatially encoded, resulting in images of the body. MRI uses three electromagnetic fields: a very strong (on the order of units of teslas) static magnetic field to polarize the hydrogen nuclei, called the static field; a weaker time-varying (on the order of 1 kHz) field(s) for spatial encoding, called the gradient field(s); and a weak radio-frequency (RF) field for manipulation of the hydrogen nuclei to produce measurable signals, collected through an RF antenna.

Like CT, MRI traditionally creates a two dimensional image of a thin "slice" of the body and is therefore considered a tomographic imaging technique. Modern MRI instruments are capable of producing images in the form of 3D blocks, which may be considered a generalisation of the single-slice, tomographic, concept. Unlike CT, MRI does not involve the use of ionizing radiation and is therefore not associated with the same health hazards. For example, because MRI has only been in use since the early 1980s, there are no known long-term effects of exposure to strong static fields and therefore there is no limit to the number of scans to which an individual can be subjected, in contrast with X-ray and CT. However, there are well-identified health risks associated with tissue heating from exposure to the RF field and the presence of implanted devices in the body, such as pace makers. These risks are strictly controlled as part of the design of the instrument and the scanning protocols used.

Because CT and MRI are sensitive to different tissue properties, the appearance of the images obtained with the two techniques differ markedly. In CT, X-rays must be blocked by some form of dense tissue to create an image, so the image quality when looking at soft tissues will be poor. In MRI, while any nucleus with a net nuclear spin can be used, the proton of the hydrogen atom remains the most widely used, especially in the clinical setting, because it is so ubiquitous and returns a large signal. This nucleus, present in water molecules, allows the excellent soft-tissue contrast achievable with MRI.

Ultrasound Imaging

Ultrasound uses high frequency broadband sound waves in the megahertz range that are reflected by tissue to varying degrees to produce (up to 3D) images. This is commonly associated with imaging the fetus in pregnant women. Uses of ultrasound are much broader, however. Other important uses include imaging the abdominal organs, heart, breast, muscles, tendons, arteries and veins.

While it may provide less anatomical detail than techniques such as CT or MRI, it has several advantages which make it ideal in numerous situations, in particular that it studies the function of moving structures in real-time, emits no ionizing radiation, and contains speckle that can be used in elastography. It is very safe to use and does not appear to cause any adverse effects, although information on this is not well documented. It is also relatively inexpensive and quick to perform. Ultrasound scanners can be taken to critically ill patients in intensive care units, avoiding the danger caused while moving the patient to the radiology department. The real time moving image obtained can be used to guide drainage and biopsy procedures. Doppler capabilities on modern scanners allow the blood flow in arteries and veins to be assessed.

Electron microscopy

The electron microscope is a microscope that can magnify very small details with high resolving power due to the use of electrons as the source of illumination, magnifying at levels up to 2,000,000 times.

Electron microscopy is employed in anatomic pathology to identify organelles within the cells. Its usefulness has been greatly reduced by immunhistochemistry but it is still irreplaceable for the diagnosis of kidney disease, identification of immotile cilia syndrome and many other tasks.

Nuclear Bombs

Nuclear medicine on a whole encompasses both the diagnosis and treatment of disease using nuclear properties. In imaging, the energetic photons emitted from radioactive nuclei are used for enhancing and viewing various pathologies.

Gamma cameras are used in nuclear medicine to detect regions of biological activity that are often associated with diseases. A short lived isotope, such as 123I is administered to the patient. These isotopes are more readily absorbed by biologically active regions of the body, such as tumors or fracture points in bones.

Positron emission tomography (PET) is primarily used to detect diseases of the brain and heart. Similarly to nuclear medicine, a short-lived isotope, such as 18F, is incorporated into a substance used by the body such as glucose which is absorbed by the tumor of interest. PET scans are often viewed alongside computed tomography scans, which can be performed on the same equipment without moving the patient. This allows the tumors detected by the PET scan to be viewed next to the rest of the patient's anatomy detected by the CT scan. Another 3D tomographic technique is SPECT but uses gamma camera like method for reconstruction.