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Radiation & Me

Diagnostic X Rays

The most important issue with diagnostic x rays is the actual radiation dose received by the unborn child. When a diagnostic x-ray study is taken of the head, teeth, chest, arms, neck, or legs at a qualified facility, there is little or no radiation exposure to the unborn child. Scattered radiation that might reach the unborn child would be extremely small, if any, and would not represent an increased risk for birth defects or miscarriage. From other diagnostic x-ray studies, including computerized tomography (CT or CAT) scans and fluoroscopy of the area outside the lower abdomen, the developing unborn child would not receive a dose that would result in any measurable increased risk of health effects.

Diagnostic x-ray studies that may involve direct radiation exposure of the developing unborn child include (1) x rays of the back (lumbar spine) for evaluating a lower-back pain or a nerve-route pain, (2) an intravenous pyelogram (IVP) to examine kidney function, (3) an upper GI series for evaluation of gastrointestinal symptoms, (4) a lower GI series (barium enema) to examine the structure and function of the large intestine, (5) x-ray studies of bladder function, (6) x-ray studies of the gallbladder and gallbladder function, (7) x-ray studies of the structure and function of the uterus and tubes with the procedure known as a hysterosalpingogram (HSP), (8) x-ray studies of the pelvis and hips for evaluating hip pain, (9) CT scans of the abdomen or pelvis, and (10) standard abdominal x rays.

These studies may expose the unborn child to radiation. However, the x-ray beam in the above-mentioned procedures may or may not be directed toward the unborn child. In some cases, the unborn child may not be exposed at all and, in others, the unborn child may be exposed for only a portion of the study. If a pregnant woman is considering or has had any of these procedures and has questions regarding radiation dose, the first step is to have someone in the radiology department or a health or medical physicist at the institution where the procedure(s) is to be or was performed estimate the actual radiation dose that may be or was received by the unborn child.

There are two important facts to consider when an evaluation is performed. First, the exposure in the vast majority of instances will be low and will not represent a reproductive risk for the unborn child for birth defects or miscarriage. Second, regardless of the dose received from these procedures, each woman must realize that when she begins a pregnancy she has a reproductive risk (referred to as background risk) of 3 percent for major birth defects and 15 percent for miscarriage. These risks change depending on the family history of the mother and her own reproductive history.