Thursday, June 9, 2016

Introduction to Radiology for Physician Assistants

Introduction to Radiology for Physician Assistants
Updated: 06/09/2016
In this post, I hope to introduce you all to the differences between imaging modalities, including indications and contraindications. My goal is also to provide a basic understanding of the concepts surrounding density and normal x-ray findings. Future posts will investigate the findings for pneumonia, pneumothoraces, effusions, atelectasis, fractures/dislocations, arthritis, intracranial, GI and hepatic pathology, bowel, lines/tubes, and heart disease.

Conventional Radiography (Plain Films)
  • Images produced through use of ionizing radiation
  • No contrast material (barium or iodine)
    • Why it’s important: Large doses of radiation can produce cell mutations leading to cancer or anomalies. Even low levels of radiation are teratogenic (avoid in pregnancy).
  • Relatively inexpensive, obtained easily (portable, mobile), most widely used
  • Common uses: chest x-ray (CXR), abdominal x-ray, and for fractures or arthritis

Computed Tomography (CT or CAT Scans)
  • Uses a gantry with a rotating x-ray beam and multiple detectors with sophisticated algorithms to process the data
  • Expensive equipment, lots of space, and high computer processing power required

Ultrasound (US)
  • Uses acoustic energy above the frequency of human hearing to produce images
  • Uses a transducer (produces and records signal), processed by a computer
  • Inexpensive compared to CT/MRI, widely available, portable/handheld
  • Very safe with no major side effects
  • No use of ionizing radiation - great for women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and children
  • Common uses: Used to image soft tissues and delineating solid from cystic structures, image-guided biopsies, non-invasive means to study blood flow

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
  • Utilizes potential energy stored in body’s hydrogen atoms (manipulated by magnetic fields and radiofrequency pulses) to produce localizing and tissue-specific energy
  • 2 or 3-D images
  • Not as widely available as CT, expensive, and high-operating costs
  • No ionizing radiation, produce higher contrast between different types of soft tissue compared to CT
  • Cannot use with objects within the body (pacemakers), ferromagnetic objects in MRI-scanner field (O2 tanks)
  • Common uses: neurologic imaging, soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments)
  • Adverse effects from some MRI contrast agents

Terminology Conventions
  • Most images are viewed as if you are viewing the patient face-to-face (no matter the position of the patient when the image was exposed)
    • Ex. the patient’s R-side is on your L-side and vice-versa
  • Study: collection of images to examine a particular part of the body or system
  • Contrast material or agent: administered to a patient to make structures more visible
    • Liquid barium (oral for upper GI exams and barium enemas)
    • Iodine (IV for contrast-enhanced CT scans)
    • Gadolinium (IV solution for MRI) and ultrasound (gas-filled microbubbles)
    • Dye is a lay-term for contrast (only used if talking to a patient)
  • Horizontal vs. Vertical X-rays
    • Horizontal x-ray beams are parallel to the floor (duh!), also called upright chest examinations
      • Why is this important? An air-fluid or fat-fluid level will only be visible if the x-ray beam is horizontal (regardless of the patient’s position)
      • Any study with the terms: erect, upright, cross-table, or decubitus are by default horizontal
    • Vertical x-ray beams are between the tube and cassette (supine radiographs)

Upright Abdomen
Air-fluid levels
Free-air under the diaphragm
Left lateral decubitus of Abdomen
Air-fluid levels
Free-air over the liver
Supine Abdomen
Free-air only if large amounts
Upright Chest
Pneumothorax at apex of lung
Air-fluid levels
Supine Chest
Pneumothorax only if large

The Five Basic Densities
  • From least to most dense
Air (black)
Absorbs the least (least dense)
Gray, somewhat blacker than soft tissue
Fluid or Soft Tissue
Both fluid (blood) and soft tissue (muscle) have the same densities on XR
Note: cannot differentiate between blood/heart muscle on XR
Calcium  (White)
Most dense, naturally occurring material (bones)
Metal (Whitest)
Absorbs all x-rays (bullets, barium), most dense

White and Black

Terms for “White”
Terms for “Black”
Conventional Radiographs
Increased density or opaque
Decreased density or lucent
Increased (high attenuation)
Hyperintense or hyperdense
Decreased (low attenuation)
Increased (high) signal intensity
Decreased (low) signal intensity
Increased echogenicity
Decreased echogenicity
Nuclear Medicine
Increased tracer uptake
Decreased tracer uptake
Barium studies

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 10.31.14 AM.png
  • Vasculature is seen as white lines on an x-ray (cannot differentiate pulmonary arteries and veins)
  • Bronchi are invisible because they are thin-walled, contain air, and surrounded by air
  • Pleura, composed of 2 layers and an inner pleural space, contains several mm of fluid but no air → neither are visible on XR (if they are, they are no thicker than a thin line)
Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 1.23.14 PM.png

2-Views (the Upright and Left Lateral XR)
Left Lateral (left side against film): imagine you are looking at the patient’s right side, spine should be on your left
  • Helps to determine location, confirm the presence, or rule out disease based on frontal (upright) XR findings
  • Helps to visualize hilar densities (enlarged pulmonary arteries) or lymph nodes, which cast a distinct lobulated mass-like shadow
  • Major (Oblique) and Minor (Horizontal) Fissures
    • Both may be visible as fine, white lines and differentiate the upper and lower lobes on left, upper, middle, and lower lobes on right
    • Major crosses obliquely through 5th thoracic vertebra to point on diaphragmatic surface of pleura a few cm behind sternum
    • Minor fissure crosses at level of 4th anterior rib (R-side only) and is horizontal
    • Only minor fissure seen on frontal view because of oblique plane of major fissure
  • Degeneration can lead to narrowing of the disk space and development of small, bony spurs (osteophytes) at margins
  • Right hemidiaphragm is visible in entire length (front-back) and is slightly higher than left
  • Left hemidiaphragm is sharply posterior and is silhouetted by muscle of heart anteriorly
  • Air in the stomach or splenic flexure of the colon appears immediately below the left hemidiaphragm
  • Posterior costophrenic sulcus (angles) - each hemidiaphragm produces a rounded dome that indents the central portion of the base of the lung producing a sulcus (depression) surrounding the periphery of each lung
    • Air in the stomach or splenic flexure appears below the left hemidiaphragm
    • Note on frontal XR, these are called lateral costophrenic angles (sulci)
    • Only requires 75 cc or less to blunt posterior angle on lateral films and 250-300 cc to blunt lateral angles on frontal

Five Key Areas on Lateral CXR
Normal Findings

Retrosternal Clear Space
Lucent crescent between sternum and ascending aorta

Note: do not mistake patient’s arms (superimposed soft tissue) for ‘filling in’ of clear space; occasionally patients are too weak to raise arms above their heads → if you see the humerus, it's an arm!
If obscured, think anterior mediastinal lymphadenopathy (most common)
Hilar Region
No discrete mass present
Look for a lobulated mass in region of the hila as shown above
Major and minor fissures should be pencil thin (if at all)
Become thick with fluid (added Kerley B lines; think pleural effusions) or fibrosis (no other signs)
Thoracic Spine
Rectangular vertebral bodies with parallel end plates
Disk spaces maintain height from top to bottom, each becomes slightly taller than or remains the same height as the one above it
Compression fracture = loss of body height
Diaphragm and Posterior Costophrenic Sulci
R-hemidiaphragm slightly higher than left
Sharp posterior costophrenic sulci
Pleural effusions blunt the costophrenic angles

The 5 Technical Factors - Is My X-ray Adequate?
  • Underpenetration (inadequate): will appear too light and you won’t be able to see the spine through the heart shadow
    • Left hemidiaphragm may not be visible on frontal XR, left lung base opaque, which can mask true pneumonia or pleural effusions → get a lateral XR to confirm
    • Pulmonary markings may appear more prominent, leading you to think patient has CHF or pulmonary fibrosis → get lateral XR and look for increased markings, airspace disease, or effusion
  • Overpenetration (too dark), lung markings appear decreased or absent
    • Leads you to think patient has emphysema or pneumothorax → look for other radiographic findings to support your claim or repeat XR
  • Degree of Inspiration - count number of posterior ribs above the diaphragm on frontal XR
    • Posterior ribs are immediately apparent and oriented horizontally, each attaching to a thoracic vertebral body
    • Anterior ribs are harder to see and are oriented downward toward the feet, attaching to the sternum
    • Poor inspiration: compresses and crowds lung markings, especially at the bases leading you to think a lower lobe pneumonia exists → confirm with lateral XR
  • Significant Rotation - may alter contour of heart, vasculature, hila, and hemidiaphragms based on the position of the patient
    • Medial ends of clavicles are anterior and spinous process is posterior; should be equidistant from medial ends of clavicle on frontal XR
    • If patient’s spinous process is closer to left clavicle → rotated toward R-side and vice-versa
    • Marked rotation can make hilum appear larger → confirm with lateral XR or compare with previous XR
    • Hemidiaphragm may appear higher on side rotated away from cassette → compare to previous study
    • Remember: objects that are farther from the cassette are magnified compared to closer objects, always compare discrepancies to older XR or order a lateral
  • Magnification - to assess the size of the heart
    • The closer the object to imaging surface, the truer its actual size; farther it is, the more magnified
    • Most CXRs are posteroanterior (PA) views - heart is closer (anterior) and truer to actual size
      • This means the x-ray beam enters at P (posterior) and exits at A (anterior)
    • Take Away: In AP image, heart is farther away and slightly magnified
  • Angulation
    • X-ray beam normally passes horizontally (parallel to floor) in upright XR, but hospitalized patients may not be able to sit up in bed
    • Excessive angulation: clavicles will project at or above the posterior first ribs distorting the normal ‘S’ shape of the clavicle (makes them straight)
      • May also make heart enlarged, mimicking cardiomegaly
    • Sharp border of left hemidiaphragm may be lost, mimicking a pleural effusion or left lower lobe pneumonia → recognize artifacts and understand distortion, consult radiology

Normal Findings
Abnormal Findings
Spine visible through the heart
Ex. Underpenetration
At least 8-9 posterior ribs visible
Spinous process should be equidistant between medial ends of clavicles
Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 2.05.08 PM.png
Hemidiaphragm appears higher on side rotated away (L) from cassette
AP films (most) will magnify heart
Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 2.19.52 PM.png
Clavicle has ‘S’ shape and superimposes on rib 3 or 4
Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 3.09.55 PM.png


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