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MAIN Arrow to Health Health Arrow to Addictions Diagnostic Tests

doctor examining an x-rayScans and tests your doctor's best tools for diagnosing disease and prescribing treatments.

Tests can be as simple as a light tap to tendons, for example, to test your reflexes or check for abnormalities in nerve function. Ultrasound is commonly used to check fetal development. Scans of your bones, lungs or heart can uncover clues to related diseases, while mammograms remain the best defense against breast cancer.

Blood tests can be used to detect the onset of diabetes or anemia, reveal the causes of kidney, liver, or heart diseases - as well as to diagnose various types of cancer.

Perhaps more importantly, testing for suspected "silent" diseases that might not show early symptoms may often lead to early, life-saving treatment.

Common medical tests

Of the hundreds of tests medical technicians now perform some of the most common include:

blood samples for testing
Blood is sent to a testing lab
to diagnose conditions ranging
from diabetes, anemia & heart
disease to HIV and cancer.


Body fluids - Blood tests and urine tests are most typical, followed by testing of cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid that cushions the spinal cord or brain), and synovial fluid (the fluid that cushions the joints).

Imaging tests - The most common are x-rays and CAT scans, but may also include ultrasound (sonograms), radioisotope (nuclear) scans, MRI's (magnetic resonance imaging), PET scans (positron emission tomography), and angiograms.

Endoscopy - This usually entails the use of an endoscope or viewing tube, used to see inside the body. It comes equipped with a light and a tiny camera that beams pictures back to a TV monitor. Tools can also be passed through a channel in the endoscope to perform other functions, such as cutting and and removing tissue samples for further testing.

Biopsy - Most often associated with cancer diagnoses, a biopsy is the removal of living cells from the skin or other organs to detect cancer cells or help in diagnosing certain inflammatory conditions or autoimmune diseases.

Organ function - The most typical include heart and brain function, such as an electrocardiograph test (ECG), for measuring electrical activity of the heart, or an electroencephalograph test (EEG) for measuring electrical activity of the brain.

Medical tests - the pros and cons

The X-ray machine changed forever the way doctors could detect certain conditions in the early 20th century, in much the same way ultrasound revolutionized prenatal care beginning in the 1950's. Today, advances in diagnostic testing marches on. One dramatic example includes the use of capsule endoscopy or miniscule cameras inside pill capsules that can now capture thousands of images as it passes through the digestive track to detect polyps, tumors, or other conditions.

The promise of more "sci-fi" advances in medical diagnostic procedures will most certainly continue into the future as genetic testing comes to the forefront. However, the cost to a patient's overall health comes into question as doctors rely more and more heavily on tools for diagnosis.

The danger of cancer arising from repeated exposure to x-rays over time is only one example of the risks involved in overuse of diagnostic tools.

Hospital administrators may also push the use of expensive equipment such as CAT scan machines to justify their expense. In a society becoming more litigious, doctors may feel the need to order a battery of tests merely to avoid a lawsuit. In other cases, tests may reveal a related condition that results in repeated testing -- sometimes on a minor ailment that would have been better left alone.

The cure for overtesting? Most consumer advocates stress the need for a better educated public on the use of diagnostic tools. Posing questions to doctors on the need for testing, or seeking a second opinion on how best to treat a condition are additional ways patients can learn about medical tests that may (or may not) be necessary.

Just up ahead, get expert advice and information on what to expect when you go for a medical procedure or lab test - what they're used for and what the results may mean.

More information about patient lab tests around the Web:

Diagnostic Testing A-Z
- Quest Diagnostics takes you through each procedure with sections on what it may diagnose, how it feels, what you can expect, as well as risks and alternatives.

Lab Tests Online - Including everything from Addison's Disease to West Nile virus with related tests listed by name and disease. Each click brings you to information on the test, the diseases it may identify and additional resources. Clear, easy to navigate and understand.

RESEARCH CENTER: Diagnostics - Read feature articles and several sections that deal with specific body parts - the knee, shoulder, etc. Take a look at the videos if you are scheduled for arthroscopy or a stent. Devices such as hearing aids are also discussed.

WebMD Medical Tests A-Z - Check out this extensive database of information on a wide range of medical tests, screenings, and procedures from WebMD.

also see related feature -> How To Overcome Fear of Needles

This information is intended as reference and not as medical advice.
All treatment decisions should be made by medical professionals.


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