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CT Scan of the Pancreas

What is a computed tomography (CT) scan of the pancreas?

A computed tomography (CT) scan is a type of imaging test. It uses X-rays and computer technology to make images of the body. A CT scan can make detailed pictures of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, organs, and blood vessels. The images are more detailed than regular X-rays.

In a CT scan, an X-ray beam moves in a circle around your body. This allows many different views of the same part of the body. The X-ray information is sent to a computer that interprets the X-ray data and displays it on a monitor.

During some tests, you receive a contrast dye that can be given orally or through a vein. It makes parts of your body show up better in the image.

CT scans of the pancreas can provide more detailed information about the pancreas than regular X-rays of the belly. If your healthcare provider is looking for pancreatic cancer, a special CT scan might be ordered. This is called a multiphase CT scan or a pancreatic protocol CT scan. CT scans can give healthcare providers more information related to injuries or diseases of the pancreas.

Why might I need a CT scan of the pancreas?

A CT scan of the pancreas may be used to check the pancreas for:

  • Tumors or other lesions

  • Injuries

  • Bleeding

  • Infections

  • Abscesses (collections of pus)

  • Unexplained belly pain

  • Blockages  

  • Other conditions

A CT scan may be done when another type of exam, such as an X-ray or physical exam, does not give enough information.

CT scans of the pancreas may be used to tell the difference between problems with the pancreas and disorders of the retroperitoneum. This is the back part of the belly. CT scans are also useful in diagnosing cancer of the pancreas and pancreatitis. Your healthcare provider may have other reasons to advise a CT scan of the pancreas.

What are the risks of a CT scan of the pancreas?

You may want to ask your healthcare provider about the amount of radiation used during the CT scan and the risks related to your situation.

If you are pregnant or think you could be, tell your healthcare provider. Radiation exposure during pregnancy may lead to birth defects.

If contrast dye is used, there is a risk for allergic reaction to the dye. Tell your healthcare provider if you are allergic to or sensitive to medicines, contrast, or iodine.

If you are breastfeeding and contrast dye is used, talk with the radiologist about when to resume breastfeeding after contrast is injected.

Tell your healthcare provider if you are taking the diabetes medicine metformin. You may be told to stop taking this medicine before the scan.

If you have kidney failure or other kidney problems, tell your healthcare provider. In some cases, the contrast dye can cause kidney failure, and people with kidney disease are more prone to kidney damage after contrast exposure.

There may be other risks depending on your condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider before the scan.

Certain things may make a CT scan of the pancreas less accurate. These include:

  • Metal objects within the belly, such as surgical clips

  • Barium in the intestines from a recent barium study

How do I get ready for a CT scan of the pancreas?

  • Your healthcare provider will explain the procedure to you, and you can ask questions.

  • If your CT scan involves the use of contrast dye, you will be asked to sign a consent form that gives permission to do the scan. Read the form carefully and ask questions if anything is not clear.

  • Tell the radiologic technologist if you have ever had a reaction to any contrast dye, or if you are allergic to iodine.

  • Generally, you don't need to fast before a CT scan, unless a contrast dye is to be used. Your healthcare provider will give you special instructions ahead of time if contrast is to be used and if you won’t be able to eat or drink.

  • Tell your healthcare provider about all the prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbs, and supplements that you are taking.

  • Tell your healthcare provider if you have kidney problems.

  • Tell the technologist if you are pregnant or think you could be.

  • Tell the technologist if you have any body piercings on your chest or belly.

  • Based on your condition, your healthcare provider may request other preparations.

What happens during a CT scan of the pancreas?

You may have a CT scan as an outpatient or as part of your stay in a hospital. Procedures may vary depending on your condition.

Generally, a CT scan of the pancreas follows this process:

  1. You will be asked to remove any clothing, jewelry, or other objects that may interfere with the procedure.

  2. You need to take off your clothing and put on a hospital gown.

  3. If you are to have a scan done with contrast, an intravenous (IV) line will be started in your hand or arm for injection of the contrast dye. For oral contrast, you will be given a liquid contrast to drink.

  4. You will lie on a narrow scan table that slides into a large, circular opening of the ring-shaped scanning machine. Pillows and straps may be used to help prevent movement during the scan.

  5. The technologist will be in another room where the scanner controls are located. But you will be able to see the technologist through a window at all times. Speakers inside the scanner will allow the technologist to talk to you and hear you. You will have a call button so that you can let the technologist know if you have any problems during the scan. The technologist will be watching you at all times and will be in constant communication.

  6. As the scanner starts to rotate around you, X-rays will pass through your body for short amounts of time. You will hear clicking and whirring sounds, which are normal.

  7. The X-rays absorbed by the body’s tissues will be detected by the scanner and transmitted to the computer. The computer will transform the information into an image to be interpreted by the radiologist.

  8. It will be important that you stay very still during the scan. You may be asked to hold your breath for a short time at various times during the scan.

  9. If contrast dye is used, you will be removed from the scanner after the first set of scans has been completed. A second set of scans will be taken after the contrast dye has been given.

  10. If contrast dye is used, you may feel some effects when the dye is injected into the IV line. These effects include a warm flushing sensation, a salty or metallic taste in the mouth, a brief headache, or nausea. These effects usually last only for a few moments. Tell the technologist if you feel pain or tingling at the IV site after the contrast is injected.

  11. Tell the technologist if you experience any sweating, numbness, heart palpitations, or shortness of breath.

  12. When the procedure is done, you will be removed from the scanner.

  13. If an IV line was inserted, it will be removed.

  14. You may be asked to wait for a short period of time while the radiologist examines the scans to make sure the images are clear.

While the CT scan itself causes no pain, having to lie still for the length of the scan might cause some discomfort or pain, particularly if you’ve recently been injured or had surgery. The technologist will use all possible comfort measures and complete the procedure as quickly as possible to reduce any discomfort or pain.

What happens after a CT scan of the pancreas?

If contrast dye was used, you may be watched for a period of time for any side effects or reactions to the contrast dye. These include itching, swelling, rash, or trouble breathing. Tell the radiologist or your healthcare provider right away if you notice any of these symptoms.

Tell your healthcare provider if you notice any pain, redness, or swelling at the IV site after you go home. These could be signs of infection or other type of reaction.

Otherwise, you don't need any special care after a CT scan of the pancreas. You may go back to your usual diet and activities unless your healthcare provider tells you otherwise.

Your healthcare provider may give you other instructions, depending on your situation.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or procedure, make sure you know:

  • The name of the test or procedure

  • The reason you are having the test or procedure

  • What results to expect and what they mean

  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure

  • What the possible side effects or complications are

  • When and where you are to have the test or procedure

  • Who will do the test or procedure and what that person’s qualifications are

  • What would happen if you did not have the test or procedure

  • Any alternative tests or procedures to think about

  • When and how you will get the results

  • Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or problems

  • How much you will have to pay for the test or procedure

Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2023
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