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A CT of the brain is a noninvasive diagnostic imaging procedure that uses special X-rays measurements to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the brain. Brain CT scans can provide more detailed information about brain tissue and brain structures than standard X-rays of the head, thus providing more data related to injuries and/or diseases of the brain.

During a brain CT, the X-ray beam moves in a circle around the body, allowing many different views of the brain. The X-ray information is sent to a computer that interprets the X-ray data and displays it in a two-dimensional (2D) form on a monitor.

Brain CT scans may be done with or without "contrast." Contrast refers to a substance taken by mouth or injected into an intravenous (IV) line that causes the particular organ or tissue under study to be seen more clearly. Contrast examinations may require you to fast for a certain period of time before the procedure. Your physician will notify you of this prior to the procedure.


If you are having computed tomography angiography (CTA) , you will be given specific instructions when you make your appointment. The following instructions will help you prepare for your brain CT:

  • Clothing : You may be asked to change into a patient gown. If so, a gown will be provided for you. Please remove all piercings and leave all jewelry and valuables at home.

  • Contrast media: You will be asked to sign a consent form that will detail the risks and side-effects associated with contrast media injected through a small tube places in a vein called an intravenous (IV) line. The most common type of brain CT scan with contrast is the double-contrast study that will require you to drink a contrast media before your exam begins in addition to the IV contrast. If you had mild to moderate reactions in the past, you will likely need to take medication prior to the brain CT scan.

  • Food and drink : If your doctor ordered a brain CT scan without contrast, you can eat, drink and take your prescribed medications prior to your exam. If your doctor ordered a CT of the brain with contrast, do not eat anything three hours prior to your brain CT. You are encouraged to drink clear liquids.

  • Diabetics : Diabetics should eat a light breakfast or lunch three hours prior to the scheduled scan. Depending on your oral medication for diabetes, you may be asked to discontinue the use of your medication for 48 hours afterthe brain CT scan. If you have a CT scan with Johns Hopkins radiology, detailed instructions will be given following your examination.

  • Medication : All patients can take their prescribed medications as usual, unless otherwise directed.

Based on your medical condition, your doctor may request other specific steps for brain CT preparation.


Brain CT scans may be performed on an outpatient basis or as part of your hospital stay. Procedures may vary depending on your condition and your physician's practices.

Generally, a brain CT scan involves the following steps:

  • If you having a procedure done with contrast, an IV line will be started in the hand or arm for the injection of the contrast media. For oral contrast, you will be given a liquid contrast preparation to swallow.

  • You will lie on a scan table that slides into a large, circular opening of the scanning machine. Pillows and straps may be used to prevent movement during the procedure.

  • The technologist will be in another room where the scanner controls are located. However, you will be in constant sight of the technologist through a window. Speakers inside the scanner will enable two-way communication between the technologist and the patient. You may have a call button so that you can let the technologist know if you have any problems during the procedure. The technologist will be watching you at all times and will be in constant communication.

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

  • 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.

  • You must remain very still during the procedure. You may be asked to hold your breath at various times during the procedure.

  • If contrast media is used for your procedure, you may feel some effects when the media is injected into the IV line. These effects include a flushing sensation, a salty or metallic taste in your mouth, a brief headache or nausea and/or vomiting. These effects usually last for a few moments.

  • You should notify the technologist if you experience any breathing difficulties, sweating, numbness or heart palpitations.

  • When the procedure has been completed, you will be removed from the scanner.

  • If an IV line was inserted for contrast administration, the line will be removed.

While the brain CT itself causes no pain, having to lie still for the length of the procedure might cause some discomfort or pain, particularly in the case of a recent injury or invasive procedure (e.g. surgery). The technologist will use all possible comfort measures and complete the procedure as quickly as possible to minimize any discomfort or pain.


If contrast media was used during your brain CT scan, you may be monitored for a period of time to check for any side effects or reactions to the contrast media. Notify your radiologist or if you experience itching, swelling, rash or difficulty breathing. If you notice any pain, redness and/or swelling at the IV site after you return home following your procedure, you should notify your doctor as this could indicate an infection or other type of reaction.

Otherwise, there is no special type of care required after a CT of the brain. Most patients are permitted to resume their usual diet and activities. Your doctor may provide additional or alternate instructions after the procedure, depending on your particular situation.

Testing time

The test will take about 30 to 60 minutes. Most of this time is spent getting ready for the scan. The actual test only takes a few minutes.

Report delivery time

The test will take about 30 to 60 minutes. Most of this time is spent getting ready for the scan. The actual test only takes a few minutes.


Benefits of CT include more effective medical management by:

  • determining when surgeries are necessary

  • reducing the need for exploratory surgeries

  • improving cancer diagnosis and treatment

  • reducing the length of hospitalizations

  • guiding treatment of common conditions such as injury, cardiac disease and stroke

  • improving patient placement into appropriate areas of care, such as
    intensive care units

In an emergency room, patients can be scanned quickly so doctors can rapidly assess their condition. Emergency surgery might be necessary to stop internal bleeding. CT images show the surgeons exactly where to operate. Without this information, the success of surgery is greatly compromised. The risk of radiation exposure from CT is very small compared with the benefit of a well-planned surgery. CT scanning provides medical information that is different from other imaging examinations, such as ultrasound, MRI, SPECT, PET or nuclear medicine. Each imaging technique has advantages and limitations. The principal advantages of CT are its abilities to:

  1. Rapidly acquire images.
  2. Provide clear and specific information.
  3. Image a small portion or all the body during the same examination. No other imaging procedure combines these advantages into a single session.

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