Knee CT scan

Definition

A computed tomography (CT) scan of the knee is an imaging method that uses x-rays to create detailed pictures of the knee.

Alternative Names

CAT scan - knee; Computed axial tomography scan - knee; Computed tomography scan - knee

How the Test is Performed

You will be asked to lie on a narrow table that slides into the center of the CT scanner. You will lie on your back.

Once you are inside the scanner, the machine's x-ray beam rotates around you. (Modern "spiral" scanners can perform the exam in one continuous motion.)

Small detectors inside the scanner measure the amount of x-rays that make it through the knee. A computer takes this information and uses it to create several individual images, called slices. These images can be stored, viewed on a monitor, or printed on film. Three-dimensional models of the knee can be created by stacking the individual slices together.

You must be still during the exam, because movement causes blurred images. You may be told to hold your breath for short periods of time.

The test should take less than 1 hour.

How to Prepare for the Test

Certain exams require a special dye, called contrast, to be delivered into the body before the test starts. Contrast can highlight specific areas inside the body, which creates a clearer image.

Some people have allergies to IV contrast and may need to take medications before their test in order to safely receive this substance.

Contrast can be given several ways:

  • It may be delivered through a vein (IV) in your hand or forearm.
  • You might drink the contrast before your scan. The contrast liquid may taste chalky, although some are flavored to make it taste a little better. The contrast eventually passes out of your body through your stools.

If contrast is used, you may also be asked not to eat or drink anything for 4-6 hours before the test.

If you weigh more than 300 pounds, have your doctor contact the scanner operator before the exam. CT scanners have a weight limit. Too much weight can cause damage to the scanner's working parts.

Since x-rays have difficulty passing through metal, you will be asked to remove jewelry and wear a hospital gown during the study.

How the Test Will Feel

Some people may have discomfort from lying on the hard table.

Contrast given through an IV may cause a slight burning sensation, a metallic taste in the mouth, and a warm flushing of the body. These sensations are normal and usually go away within a few seconds.

Why the Test is Performed

CT rapidly creates more detailed pictures of the knee than can be seen on standard x-rays. The test may be used to:

  • Diagnose or evaluate cancer or tumors
  • Evaluate a mass that can be felt during a physical exam
  • Evaluate an abscess or infection
  • Evaluate pain or other problems in the knee joint when MRI cannot be done
  • Guide a surgeon to the right area during a biopsy
  • Identify masses and tumors, including cancer
  • Identify or evaluate a fracture

Normal Results

Results are considered normal if the knee being examined is normal in appearance.

What Abnormal Results Mean

Abnormal results may be due to:

  • Abscess
  • Arthritis
  • Fracture
  • Tumor

Risks

CT scans and other x-rays are strictly monitored and controlled to make sure they use the least amount of radiation. CT scans do create low levels of ionizing radiation, which has the potential to cause cancer and other defects. However, the risk associated with any individual scan is small. The risk increases as numerous additional studies are performed.

In some cases, a CT scan may still be done if the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. For example, it can be more risky not to have the exam, especially if your health care provider thinks you might have cancer.

The most common type of contrast given into a vein contains iodine. If a person with an iodine allergy is given this type of contrast, nausea or vomiting, sneezing, itching, or hives may occur. Let your doctor know if you have ever had an allergic reaction to injected contrast dye.

If you absolutely must be given such contrast, your doctor may choose to treat you with antihistamines (such as Benadryl) or steroids before the test.

The kidneys help filter the iodine out of the body. Therefore, those with kidney disease or diabetes should receive plenty of fluids after the test, and be closely monitored for kidney problems. If you have diabetes or are on kidney dialysis, talk to your health care provider before the test about your risks.

Before receving the contrast, tell your health care provider if you take the diabetes medication metformin (Glucophage) because you may need to take extra precautions.

Rarely, the dye may cause a life-threatening allergic response called anaphylaxis. If you have any trouble breathing during the test, you should notify the scanner operator immediately. Scanners come with an intercom and speakers, so the operator can hear you at all times.

References

Beynnon BD, Johnson RJ, Coughlin KM. Knee. In: DeLee JC, Drez Jr. D. DeLee & Drez’s Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2003:chap 28.


Review Date: 2/4/2009
Reviewed By: Benjamin Taragin, MD, Department of Radiology, Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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