Abdominal CT Scan

Written by Brian Krans | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


A CT scan is a type of X-ray that can show cross-sectional images of a specific area of the body. The machine circles the body and sends the images to a computer, where they are viewed by a technician.

Each picture is viewed as a cross-section of the body to provide doctors with alternate views of your body. An abdominal CT scan helps doctors see the organs, vessels, and bones in the abdominal cavity.

A CT scan is also referred to as a CAT scan.

Why an Abdominal CT Scan Is Performed

Abdominal CT scans are used when a doctor suspects an abnormality in the abdominal area but can’t determine the specifics through a physical examination.

Some of the reasons your doctor may want you to undergo an abdominal CT scan include:

  • abdominal pain
  • kidney stones
  • pre-surgery planning
  • infections, such as appendicitis
  • inflammation of the intestines, such as Crohn’s disease
  • injuries following trauma
  • bladder stones
  • blood clots

The Risks of an Abdominal CT Scan

An abdominal CT scan has very few risks, but, according to the Harvard Medical School, some of the dye used in the procedure can cause temporary kidney damage. This risk increases if your kidneys have already been affected by disease or infection. However, newer dyes pose a much lower risk to the kidneys (Harvard).

As with any X-ray, there is some exposure to radiation. While the exposure is typically harmless, it’s important to tell your doctor if you are or may be pregnant.

How to Prepare for an Abdominal CT Scan

Doctors typically ask patients to fast for two to four hours before the scan. You may want to wear loose, comfortable clothing because you will be required to lie down on the table. You may also be given a hospital gown to wear. You’ll be instructed to remove any jewelry and other unnecessary items from your body.

Depending on the reason you’re getting your CT scan, you may be required to drink a large volume of oral contrast, a liquid that contains barium and has a chalky taste and texture. This helps doctors to better see the lining of your organs and is particularly helpful if your doctor suspects you may have ulcers or a blockage.

A patient typically waits between 60 and 90 minutes after drinking the contrast for it to distribute into the bowels.

Before going into your CT scan, tell your doctor if you have any of the following conditions:

  • allergy to oral contrast (barium)
  • diabetes (fasting may lower blood sugar levels)
  • pregnancy

How an Abdominal CT Scan Is Performed

An abdominal CT scan is performed in a hospital’s radiology department or a clinic that specializes in diagnostic procedures. Once you’re dressed in your hospital gown, a CT technician will have you lie down on the procedure table.

Depending on the reason for your scan, you may be hooked up to an IV so contrast dye can be put through your veins. This liquid helps the machine get better images of your blood vessels and organs. You may have to swallow a barium shake.

The technician may require you to lie in a specific position during the test. He or she may use pillows or straps to ensure that you stay in the correct position long enough to get a good-quality image. You may also have to hold your breath briefly during individual scans.

Using a remote control from a separate room, the technician will move the table into the CT machine, which looks like a giant doughnut made of plastic and metal. You will most likely go through the machine several times.

After a round of scans, you may be required to wait while the technician reviews the images to ensure they are clear enough for your doctor to read correctly.

A typical abdominal CT scan takes between 30 to 45 minutes to complete.

After an Abdominal CT Scan

After the test, you can go about your day as you normally would.

Results for an abdominal CT scan typically take a day to process. Your doctor will schedule a follow-up appointment to discuss your results and how to proceed depending on the findings.


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