Computed tomography (CT) of the spine

CT scanning—sometimes called CAT scanning—is a noninvasive medical test that helps physicians diagnose and treat medical conditions.

CT scanning combines special x-ray equipment with sophisticated computers to produce multiple images or pictures of the inside of the body. These cross-sectional images of the area being studied can then be examined on a computer monitor or printed.

CT scans of internal organs, bone, soft tissue and blood vessels provide greater clarity and reveal more details than regular x-ray exams.

Using CT, the bony structure of the spinal vertebrae is clearly and accurately shown by CT scanning, as are the intervertebral disks and, to some degree, the spinal cord.

Perhaps the most frequent use of spinal CT is to detect—or rule out—spinal column damage in patients who have been injured.

CT scanning of the spine is also performed to:

  • evaluate the spine before and after surgery.
  • detect various types of tumor in the vertebral column, including those that have spread there from another area of the body. Some tumors that arise elsewhere are first identified by finding deposits of malignant cells (metastases) in the vertebrae; prostate cancer is an example.
  • help diagnose spinal pain. One of the most common causes of spinal pain that may be diagnosed by CT is a herniated intervertebral disk, sometime with CT myelography
  • accurately measure bone density in the spine and predict whether vertebral fractures are likely to occur in patients who are at risk of osteoporosis.
  • guide diagnostic procedures such as the biopsy of a suspicious area to detect cancer, or the removal of fluid from a localized infection (abscess).

In patients with narrowing of the spinal canal, vertebral fracture, infection or degenerative disease such as arthritis, CT of the spine may provide important information when performed alone or in addition to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).