In today’s modern world, there are many things that we take for granted on a daily basis. Advances in technology have led to greater communication through mobile phones and the internet, and huge steps in visiting other planets and moons. However, one of the most staggering advances has been in science and medicine. Thanks to a lot of research and new technology, doctors can do things that would have seemed impossible 10 or 20 years ago.
It has led to the eradication of many diseases and a longer life expectancy in many developed countries. One of those leaps in technology was the invention of medical imaging, from its early development, it has enabled people to forgo invasive procedures and be diagnosed much quicker. Here are some of the ways medical imaging has impacted on modern medicine, and how future research could bring new ways to see inside the body.
Before Medical Imaging
Before the invention and development of medical imaging, the process of diagnosing and treating ailments was much different. Medical knowledge was still in its infancy and many of the most common problems today were not discovered. For a patient, the diagnosis was not straightforward; many would have to undergo invasive surgery to find out what the problem was. Unfortunately, because surgery was still being perfected, some people would not survive the exploratory procedure.
If they were not operated on, then the doctors would have to rely on their experience and the limited number of tests that were available at the time. That could mean that a patient’s illness was not diagnosed properly, or would be treated with the wrong medication. All of this made life difficult for the surgeons and doctors that were trying to help their patients, so when medical imaging was first discovered, the practical implications were enormous.
The discovery of x-rays was immediately seen as an important tool for doctors to use in their work. Just one year after its discovery by German physicist Wilhelm Rontgen, an x-ray imaging system was being used for medical purposes almost worldwide. For the first time, there was a way to see inside the human body without surgery, and diagnose problems faster and more accurately; in particular, the ability to check for broken bones and other damage was invaluable and meant that there were less risky operations and subsequent risk of infection.
The early pioneers of x-rays including Thomas Edison developed better ways of creating the rays and how they were captured. It was also the first time that the effect of x-rays was beginning to be understood. One of Edison’s glassblowers Clarence Madison Dally, tested all the x-ray tubes on his own hands. He subsequently developed a serious and tenacious cancer that resulted in the amputation of both his arms. However, the benefits of x-rays and its use continued to break new ground with more sophisticated and efficient machines that were safe to practice.
Medical Resonance Imaging (MRI)
Up until this point, x-rays were proving a great addition to the medical field. However, they were slightly limited because they couldn’t always pick up problems in the soft tissue. In 1946, researchers at Stanford and Harvard discovered nuclear magnetic resonance. In 1971, this discovery had led to the development of magnetic resonance imaging or MRI. With this development, it became much easier to see other areas of the body such as the soft tissue and areas of the brain.
Unlike x-rays, MRI uses strong magnetic fields, radio waves, and field gradients to generate images of the tissue and organs inside the body. It has meant that the identification of cancer and damage to the internal organs has been more successful to the point where many medical centers use MRI as a matter of routine. There are some limitations though, as it does require entering what can sometimes be a noisy and intimidating machine, and there are some patients who have metal implants that are not able to use it.
By using other agents such as contrast agents, MRI can also see detailed images of the flow in arteries and other vessels. This can help with the detection of narrowing of the arteries and aneurysms.
Ultrasound is something that has been mastered by animals for thousands of years. Many of them such as bats, use it to see the world around them and to hone in on their prey. The development of ultrasound came about as scientists sought to mimic the amazing echolocation in animals. In 1975, the Ochsner Health System introduced ultrasound medical imaging, and for the first time, doctors were able to see internal tissues and organs without having to use high radiation imaging.
Probably the biggest benefit was for pregnant women, before the development of ultrasound, the development of the fetus was primarily investigated by listening to the baby’s heartbeat and by feeling through the woman’s abdomen. Other forms of imaging were too high a risk to the mother and baby because of the radiation. Now, there was a way to see the unborn fetus as it was developing and see if there were any abnormalities. As with all medical developments, even ultrasound has been honed and improved.
Many surgeons now use ultrasound technology to help them during operations. Their use is invaluable when trying to place stents and needles inside the body without the need for a major incision.
Many of these medical imaging machines are now being used in all types of medical center for a variety of functions. The units themselves have now become smaller and can even be made portable. Advances in radiology information system software by companies such as MedInformatix has allowed doctors surgeries, dental practices, and physiotherapists to utilize the technology to help their patients and to help them determine the issue. It has also meant that the wait for scans has decreased due to the varied locations that these machines are now available. As well as continuing to help patients by diagnosing medical problems, there have also been other advances in areas such as x-rays.
For some people who are diagnosed with cancer, surgery is not an option. It could be that it would be too invasive, or that the location of the tumor would make surgery difficult and too risky. For these people, there are other ways that cancer can be attacked. The use of x-ray radiation has been used for many years to target the cancer cells to stop them from growing. The treatment has been refined over the years to the point where they can now pinpoint the cancer cells without damaging any of the healthy tissue that surrounds it, improving the success rate.
Once it was discovered that radiation could affect cancerous tissue, scientists tried to experiment with other forms of energy. One such example is Gamma radiation. Gamma is a higher form of energy than x-rays and, therefore, has a much greater effect on the cancerous tissue. It can also be used in a much more concentrated way, meaning that doctors can be more precise in its use to kill the cancer cells. The type of treatment that uses Gamma radiation is now often called the Gamma knife.
The Future of Medical Imaging
With science and technology always moving forward, there are going to be many developments, particularly in the treatment of cancer. Scientists have already developed new ways to use radiation in targeting tumors that have a high success rate. One such development is Proton Beam Therapy, which uses beams of protons to target cancerous tissue. It uses ionizing radiation in a particle accelerator to create a beam of protons; these particles damage the DNA of any cells they come into contact with, killing them. Cancer cells are at risk of this type of particle because of their fragile DNA; it makes this type of treatment highly effective.
Certain cancers, in particular, are more susceptible to this treatment than others, depending on their DNA structure. Because the protons have a relatively large mass, they have little side scatter in the tumor. That means there is only a low dose radiation to the surrounding healthy tissue, making it better for the patient. There have been many high-profile cases that have involved the use of proton beam therapy.
Although it is still in its early development, there have been some exciting success stories. It has meant that many countries around the world are now considering using these new machines in their hospitals.
With existing technology such as x-rays and newer developments like proton therapy, the science of medicine is stronger than ever. Imaging methods such as ultrasound and MRI are now becoming far more sophisticated and now have greater detail. Ultrasound, in particular, can now show the speed and resistance of blood flow within the body. It makes the diagnosis of illnesses and ailments such as heart disease much easier and far less invasive; it also makes detecting symptoms and finding a solution quicker and more reliable.