Like all good parents, we take our children to their dentist and pediatrician on a regular basis. Being the neurotic father that I am, I am aware that I am sometimes a health care professional's worst nightmare because I tend to constantly question the safety and necessity of the countless number of tests and procedures that our kids are put through.

I realize that doctors and dentists are trained professionals that know what they are doing, and I am not in a position (well, maybe a little) to question them, but sometimes I wonder if they've come to rely too heavily on technology and may have lost sight of the big picture.

In other words, by focusing on a single aspect of our health, like say, preventing cavities, might they be ignoring the consequences on the rest of our body?

Going to the Dentist

This concept crops all the time with me when we go to the dentist, mainly because not only do kids seem to have an increasing number of cavities (not just our kids), but they use all sorts of chemicals and polymers to treat and prevent tooth decay. Fluoride, after all, can be a toxic poison, and bisphenol-A (BPA), which is used in fillings and sealants, is increasingly in the spotlight because of its potential health consequences.

Couple this with the regular exposure to X-ray radiation, and at least for me, it makes me stop and think, is all this really necessary?

Exposure to Radiation

A new paper in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine touches on this issue and describes the first large study of its kind to take a good look at radiation exposure in children through the use of X-rays and other diagnostic methods. The article reveals that on average, children will get more than seven radiation scans by the time they are 18 years of age, which for some health care professionals is a cause for concern.

Interestingly enough, the study did not include a child's exposure to dental X-rays, which surely must increase their overall exposure, though the article does indicate that X-rays use relatively little radiation. The bigger concern was the increased use of computed tomography (CT) scans, which give doctors detailed pictures of the body but use higher doses of radiation. The authors did not indicate whether the tests were used unnecessarily.

According to the study, which looked at over 355,000 children, 8% of the kids received CT scans, and 3% underwent two or more. Projections from this information indicate that an estimated 6 million children in this country will undergo the test, thus exposing them to high levels of radiation.

The problem lies in the fact that developing tissue and organs in a child are particularly sensitive to radiation exposure, and since children are still growing, there is a longer duration for a tumor to develop, thereby increasing their risk for cancer over their lifetime.

There is currently no consensus in the field of medicine regarding the safe lifetime dose of radiation in children, but efforts are being made to ensure that exposure is minimized and these tests only be used when all other alternatives have been exhausted. From my own personal perspective, when it comes to radiation, I think less is better.

When Is It Necessary?

In certain instances CT scans can provide vital information to doctors, but the question becomes "When should doctors actually use them on children, and how often?" CT scans are most often employed in emergency rooms (ER) to screen for brain injuries or appendicitis, but some hospitals are looking for safer alternatives that do not use radiation, turning to CT scans only when it is necessary.

This would include techniques like ultrasound when a child complains of having stomach pain, and seeking out all possible options before subjecting a child to one or more CT scans and the radiation exposure that occurs along with them.

What Parents Can Do

There is no simple solution, and in situation where time is of the essence, especially in the ER, doctors and patients cannot afford to dawdle and weigh their options. The proper tests and procedures can make a huge difference in the outcome.

However, in certain cases, when faced with less time-pressure, parents should be informed of any risks to their children as well as what their options may be, especially if the alternatives pose fewer risks.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and parents, including myself, are often reluctant to question what our doctors or dentists are telling us for fear of being a nuisance or seeming ignorant by calling into question their decisions.

We turn to our health care professionals in our time of need, but that does not preclude the right to be informed, especially with our kids. So take the time to voice your concerns and ask relevant questions, and whatever you do, don't be intimidated if your doctors makes you feel bad for wanting to know.

If the situation is bad enough, seek a second opinion or find another health care provider. The health of your family may depend on it.

For information about children and radiation exposure, visit the website for the National Cancer Institute.

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