A 3D mammogram is an advanced breast cancer screening tool. Multiple X-rays taken from different angles are compiled together to create a three-dimensional picture of your breast tissue. The test itself looks and feels very similar to a standard mammogram, but the final results give your doctor a clearer picture of what’s going on beneath the surface.

When combined with traditional two-dimensional X-ray images, 3D mammograms detect more cancers than 2D technology alone. They also cut down on callbacks for further testing and lead to fewer false positives.

Keep reading to learn more about 3D mammograms, when and why they’re used, and how they may benefit you.

A 3D mammogram actually starts by capturing standard two-dimensional X-ray images. But while a traditional mammogram takes only four 2D images, a 3D mammogram can capture hundreds.

Each X-ray shows a layer of your breast about 1 millimeter thick, which is about as thick as a credit card. A computer combines these images to create a three-dimensional picture of your breast tissue.

A traditional mammogram captures two X-ray images of each breast, a view from the top and a view from the side. A 3D mammogram machine can take these traditional images as well. The more images your doctor has at their disposal, the more thorough your screening will be.

A 3D mammogram looks for the same abnormalities as a traditional mammogram. They are most frequently used to screen for breast cancer in people without any signs or symptoms. But they are also used to help doctors investigate symptoms like lumps, nipple discharge, and other changes.

Your mammogram results will be analyzed by a radiologist, which is a doctor who specializes in imaging tests. They will look for the following when examining your mammogram:

Most research shows that 3D mammograms, when used in combination with traditional mammography, are more accurate than 2D screenings alone. Key findings show that using both 2D and 3D techniques:

  • increases cancer detection rates
  • reduces the need for further testing
  • finds more invasive cancers
  • reduces false positives
  • improves cancer detection in people with dense breasts

A 2020 study looked at more than 1.5 million mammograms and compared the two screening methods. It found that 3D mammograms were particularly useful for first-time (baseline) screenings. This gives doctors something to compare future images to.

Another 2019 study found that 3D mammograms led to fewer callbacks among women ages 65 and older.

Mammograms, both 2D and 3D, can be uncomfortable. Mammogram machines are low dose X-ray machines designed specifically for breasts. Before taking the pictures, a technician will compress your breast in between two clear plates. Flattening the breast makes it easier for X-rays to penetrate the tissue and helps create a clearer, more detailed image.

As the plates compress your breast, you’ll experience some pressure and discomfort. If it hurts too badly, you can let your technician know. They may be able to make adjustments. Some facilities even allow you to adjust the pressure yourself.

A 3D mammogram typically takes about 10 to 30 minutes to complete. Because it involves more X-ray images than a 2D procedure, it may take a bit longer than a traditional mammogram.

To reduce your chances of a painful mammogram, try to avoid scheduling it on a day you expect to get your period. Breast tissue is typically much more sensitive around this time.

The out-of-pocket costs of a 3D mammogram may be more than a traditional 2D one. Many insurance providers, including Medicaid and Medicare, cover 3D mammograms, but some do not.

Copays for 2D and 3D mammograms tend to be similar. But 3D mammograms are not available everywhere, which can mean extra costs for travel, parking, or child care.

If you have insurance and are interested in a 3D mammogram, contact your insurance provider to discuss your coverage details.

If you don’t have insurance, there are several ways to access low cost or free mammograms with the support of government programs and advocacy organizations.

Mammograms, like all X-rays, expose you to low doses of radiation. There isn’t much difference between 2D and 3D mammograms in terms of radiation exposure. In fact, radiation exposure during a 3D mammogram can be higher or lower than exposure during a 2D mammogram.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the amount of radiation emitted during a mammogram is roughly equal to the amount of background radiation the average person is exposed to every 7 weeks.

Regular breast cancer screenings are the best way to detect breast cancer before you develop any signs or symptoms. Different health organizations recommend slightly different screening schedules for people of different ages and risk levels.

Because 3D mammograms have only recently become widely available, most guidelines do not recommend one screening type over another.

The current ACS guidelines do not specify a preference between 2D and 3D screenings.

However, the ACS has stated that they believe individual people should be able to choose which one is right for them, based on their preference and the advice of their doctor.

Anyone who needs one can get a 3D mammogram. They are particularly beneficial for people with dense breasts, which can make abnormalities hard to spot on traditional 2D images.

Most major medical institutions now use 3D mammograms as their standard of care, but they are not available at all testing centers. This means you may need to travel to a specialized facility, which can mean higher out-of-pocket costs.

Talk with your doctor about your personal mammogram schedule and whether a 3D mammogram is right for you. How often you need a mammogram depends on factors such as your:

Discuss the need for a mammogram with your doctor if you are pregnant. Unless there is a specific reason to get a mammogram, your doctor may recommend waiting to undergo the screening. You are still eligible for a mammogram if you’re breastfeeding.

Transgender men and women may also need mammograms. Transgender men who have not had top surgery need to follow the recommended screening guidelines for people with breasts. Transgender women who use hormone therapy should also be screened regularly. Transgender men who’ve had top surgery may not need mammograms, but should discuss this with their doctor.

You should get your mammogram results within a few weeks, if not sooner. A radiologist will carefully review the images and pass along their findings to your doctor. Your doctor may call you to share the results, send them through an online patient portal, or send a copy in the mail.

If something looks suspicious or unclear, your doctor may call you back in. This is quite common. If you need additional screening, your doctor will explain why and break down your next steps.

Reach out to your doctor if you have not received your results after 1 or 2 weeks.

Your doctor may recommend a 3D mammogram because of its potentially increased accuracy. Your healthcare facility may also reach out to see which type you would prefer. Often, 3D and 2D mammograms are done at the same time. Talk with your doctor and insurance company to find out whether a 3D mammogram is right for you.