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Medical Radiation: More Dangerous Than You Think

Odds are, if you have seen a cardiologist for a heart concern, you’ve had some diagnostic testing. It may have been a cardiac catheterization, an echocardiogram, an electrocardiogram (EKG), a coronary calcium scan, a radionuclide stress test, a coronary angiography, or a cardiac MRI. 

While these tests may provide valuable information, some also contain a hidden danger: radiation. Not only does medical radiation increase the odds of cancer, but it also damages all the tissue it encounters including blood vessels, the brain and nerves, and the heart muscle. The reality is that some medical tests cause the same problems you are testing for and hoping to avoid. 

Understanding radiation

Radiation is energy that travels through space as invisible particles or waves. Each day we are exposed to radiation naturally through our environment. Radiation is found in our air, water, soil, and even in us. 

Radiation comes from man-made objects such as radio waves, microwaves, and cell phones. In addition, many medical imaging tests use radiation, such as MRIs, ultrasounds, x-rays, CT scans, and PET scans. The higher the energy of radiation, the more potential it has to cause harm to the human body. 

There are two forms of radiation: 

  • Non-ionizing radiation

Non-ionizing radiation comes from UV light, infrared rays, microwaves, and radio frequency. It has long wavelengths and low-frequency energy. Because of its low frequency, it does not have enough energy to displace electrons from atoms or molecules. Therefore, as a general rule, it’s considered the safer of the two forms of radiation. 

  • Ionizing radiation 

Unlike non-ionizing radiation, ionizing radiation is high-energy radiation with enough energy to break molecular bonds and remove electrons from atoms or molecules. This type of dangerous radiation produces free radicals and can damage tissues and DNA. 

Radiation: it all adds up 

Most people know that radiation is not suitable for the body. However, when inquiring with their doctor before a radiological procedure, many are reassured that the dose is so low that it won’t cause an issue. A typical medical response is: “You’re exposed to more radiation flying in an airplane.” 

While this may be true, the impacts of radiation are cumulative. This means that radiation exposure from many different sources adds up over a lifetime. Even small amounts of radiation exposure may damage DNA. 

Multiple studies have demonstrated that repeated exposure to dangerous radiation increases the risk of cancer. No amount of radiation has ever been deemed completely safe. However, the American College of Radiology has set the lifetime exposure limit for radiation at 100 millisieverts (mSv). 

Unfortunately, the number of diagnostic tests performed in the United States is rising. In fact, studies show that the use of ionizing radiation more than doubled in just 25 years. According to research, America performs more CT scans and MRIs than other advanced countries and with little return on investment. 

Heart tests and medical radiation 

Some cardiac imaging tests emit high doses of dangerous radiation, while others do not. A 2010 study of nearly one million people found that one out of every ten adults was exposed to radiation through a cardiac imaging procedure during the three-year study. 

A 2011 study concluded that radiation in heart procedures is tied to cancer risk. This five-year study of approximately 83,000 Canadians found that for every additional 10 mSv in radiation received, the risk of developing cancer rose by 3 percent. 

So which cardiac tests use ionizing radiation? Listed below are the tests that use radiation, ranked from the highest radiation to the lowest. 

Nuclear cardiac stress test

A nuclear cardiac stress test is used to determine the extent of coronary artery disease and the risk for significant blockages. This procedure injects radioactive material called a tracer into the bloodstream. Then, an imaging machine takes pictures of blood flow to the heart. 

There are two different kinds of nuclear stress tests, and both involve a significant amount of radiation. For example, a dual isotope MPI stress test emits 25 mSv, equal to 1250 chest x-rays! 

(We NEVER recommend this test at Natural Heart Doctor. If you need a stress test with imaging, choose a stress echocardiogram instead. This can be done one a treadmill or with an IV heart stimulant called dobutamine.)

Coronary CT angiography

A coronary CT angiography (CCTA) is a test that produces images of the arteries in the heart to determine if there are abnormalities in blood flow to the heart. Using a chemical dye injected into the veins, a CCTA can visualize blockages in the coronary arteries that surround the heart. A coronary CT angiography exposes an individual to between 3 and 12 mSv radiation. 

Chest computed tomography (CT)

 

A chest CT is a commonly used diagnostic procedure that utilizes special x-ray equipment to take pictures of the heart and surrounding organs. This test is sometimes ordered for individuals experiencing chest pain or shortness of breath so that doctors can determine if the problem stems from the heart or the lungs. A chest CT exposes an individual to approximately 7-10 mSv radiation. 

Cardiac catheterization 

A cardiac catheterization, also called a cardiac cath or coronary angiogram, is a procedure that measures the pressure and blood flow around the heart. During this procedure, a small tube called a catheter is inserted into a blood vessel and threaded into the heart. Individuals are exposed to dangerous radiation either through fluoroscopy or cine angiography. A cardiac cath exposes an individual to approximately 8-10 mSv radiation. 

Coronary calcium scan

Calcified arterial plaques can be seen with a specialized x-ray device called a coronary CT scan. A coronary calcium scan helps to detect the amount or level of calcium deposits in the heart’s arteries, which can help determine the severity of atherosclerosis. A coronary CT calcium scan exposes an individual to approximately 1-2 mSv radiation. A coronary CT angiogram involves more radiation, between 3-14 mSv. (Natural Heart Doctor never recommends this test).

Chest x-ray

Physicians sometimes order chest x-rays to get a primary picture of the heart. Chest x-rays can detect an enlarged heart, which may indicate heart failure. It may also identify pericarditis. A chest x-ray exposes an individual to approximately 0.1- 0.25 mSv radiation. 

The safest heart imaging tests include an echocardiogram, which emits virtually no radiation, or an MRI (avoid gadolinium contrast when possible).

Dangers of radiation beyond cancer

Despite evidence of radiation-induced cancer, most people are unaware of the dangers of radiation from medical imaging. Moreover, even those aware of the risks often believe that cancer is the problematic result of too much radiation. And while it’s true that radiation from medical imaging is carcinogenic, the risks extend far beyond cancer.

Radiation damages cells, including those in the heart. Individuals who have undergone radiation due to cancer often suffer from radiation-induced cardiovascular disease. Individuals with extensive radiation exposure may suffer from multiple heart conditions, including: 

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Valvular disease
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Pericardial disease
  • Electrical abnormalities and rhythm disturbances

How to minimize radiation damage

Some radiation can’t be avoided, such as in the atmosphere around us. However, medical imaging that includes radiation should be carefully considered. Doctors and patients should work together to decide if the test results’ benefits will outweigh the procedure’s risks. Sadly, many doctors underestimate the radiological risks associated with some tests.

If your doctor recommends a heart test, consider asking the following questions: 

  1. Will the outcome of the test change our treatment strategy? If the test results won’t alter the recommended treatment, radiation exposure should be avoided. Example: Will you start statins and aspirin if you have coronary calcium? Will you have a stress test or angiogram, even though you don’t have symptoms (bad idea)?
  1. Is there another effective test that doesn’t use dangerous radiation? For example, an ultrasound can often provide similar information as an x-ray.
  1. Can a lower dose of radiation be used? 

Supplements for before and after a radiation exposure

Natural Heart Doctor recommends the following protocol for before and after a radiation-based procedure.

  1. Daily Defense– This functional food protein shake mix is loaded with vitamins, mineral, and antioxidants to support radiation induced damaged. Dosage: 2 scoops per day for 7 days before and 7 days after surgery.
  2. SuperFood– This organic powder is 50% spirulina, 50% chlorella. Studies in animals show a protect effects of spirulina against radiation damage. Dosage: 1 tablespoon in water for 7 days before and 7 days after surgery.
  3. Berbe– Helps prevent radiation damage according to this animal study and this human study. Dosage: 2 caps per day for 7 days before and 7 days after surgery.

Next steps

The overuse of medical testing in the developed world is a huge problem. While there is a time and a place for diagnostic medical tests, especially during an emergency, most are unwarranted and come with risks.

In short, there is no reason for a coronary calcium scan. Assume you have coronary artery calcification. Now what are you going to do?

A skilled doctor can obtain many answers to cardiac problems from blood/urine tests alone. Advanced testing found here can tell a story of the heart that may provide more solutions than an actual 3D image. 

If your cardiologist has recommended imaging that exposes you to radiation, consider a free 20-minute consultation with one of our experienced Natural Heart Doctor health coaches or one of our physicians. Our skilled providers will listen to your health concerns and offer alternative suggestions that don’t increase your risk of future health problems. 

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Medical Review: Lauren Lattanza 2022

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