MountainStar Health - August 19, 2019

Curious about the inner workings of your body? So are your doctors. That’s why they turn to imaging to get a closer look at what’s happening under your skin.

There are many types of imaging scans, and each uses different technologies to scope out signs of disease or detect internal injuries and determine how to treat them. Imaging can tell doctors a lot, but may not be needed in every situation. And some imaging exposes you to radiation and should be limited, so don’t be surprised if your provider only orders scans sporadically.

Here’s a primer on what common scans do.


X-rays use small doses of electromagnetic radiation to capture pictures of your body’s internal structures. They are quick, inexpensive and safe, but they show limited detail. This makes X-rays best for diagnosing bone fractures and identifying injuries or infections in soft tissues.


Ultrasound uses sound waves that travel through liquid and soft tissues to create a detailed image of internal organs. It’s portable, widely available and uses no radiation. Though best known for monitoring pregnancies, ultrasounds can also help diagnose unexplained pain, swelling and infection in organs and joints, as well as evaluate blood flow.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI):

MRIs use powerful magnets and radio waves to produce highly detailed images of soft tissues from multiple angles. These sharper images are a more accurate tool for investigating diverse conditions, from slipped discs to brain tumors. MRIs are pricier than most imaging tests and usually take 30 to 60 minutes to complete.

Computed tomography (CT):

CT scans use X-rays to create multidimensional, cross-sectional images of the body that show internal organs, bones, soft tissue and blood vessels. Images are extremely detailed and can capture any part of the body. Though quick and effective, CT scans are expensive and expose patients to higher doses of radiation. But they also help doctors diagnose heart disease, cancer and internal injuries faster.