In a bid to stay healthy and live longer, most of us schedule frequent doctor visits to make sure our body is in great condition. Staying vigilant about your health is important to catch diseases early and treat them. However, some of us may go overboard and take unnecessary tests without knowing their repercussions. Knowing which tests to take in moderation might actually be better for your health (and your savings).
These 5 common medical tests aren’t always necessary for everyone; so know when you actually need them. Do note that whether you need any of these tests depends on your medical history (also a history of hereditary diseases in the family) as well as your lifestyle.
1. PAP Smears
Most women get Pap smears every year (sometimes even twice a year) to catch cervical cancer in its early stages. However, the American Cancer Society advises against any yearly screening, including Pap smears, at any age, since frequent screenings put you at risk of invasive tests and possible infections.1
As cervical cancer develops very slowly and usually takes about 10 to 20 years to actually spread, if you tested negative at your previous annual Pap smear test, then you probably won’t need to take another soon. The general revised (in 2012) recommendation of the American Cancer Society is that:
- Since most cervical cancers are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) which is transmitted sexually, women below 21 who are not sexually active need not take the Pap smear test at all, except as recommended by their doctor.
- Women between 21 and 29 who are sexually active (even if in a monogamous relationship) should take a Pap smear test every 3 years. The HPV screening is usually not advised at this stage.
- Women between the ages 30 to 65 should get Pap smears done only once in every 3 years. If they combine their Pap smear test with HPV screening and the results are negative, they can go without testing for another 5 years.
- If you’re over 65 and have tested negative for cervical cancer 3 times in the past 10 years, then you don’t need to take these tests at all anymore.
- A total hysterectomy that removes both the uterus and the cervix also eliminates the chances of you developing cervical cancer (unless the hysterectomy itself was to remedy a cancer). So if you’ve had one, a Pap smear is unnecessary. However, continue with Pap smears every 3 years if your cervix has not been removed.
2. Bone Density Tests
Osteoporosis is a very real concern for women, so it’s natural you want to schedule frequent bone density exams. However, it’s important to understand at what age you actually develop a risk of having low bone density. The risk for osteoporosis begins with menopause, and osteoporosis is usually common women above 65 years of age. A decrease in bone mass starts after 35, but bone loss is usually slow, unless accompanied by a deficiency in vitamin D and calcium and lifestyle factors like underweight, smoking, and high alcohol consumption.
Unless a risk of osteoporosis runs in the family, or you have been taking medicines like proton pump inhibitors, antacids, steroids, or antidepressants,2 or you have the lifestyle factors mentioned above, as per the National Osteoarthritis Foundation, bone density tests should be taken by:3
- Women aged 65 or older
- Menopausal women with risk factors
- Men aged 70 or older
- Men aged 50–69 with risk factors
- People who a bone after age 50
Even then, how frequently you may need a bone density test depends on your T-score.
- T-score between -1 and -1.5 | you can wait for 15 years before the next test.
- T-score between -1.5 and -2 | ( osteopenia) start taking precautions for osteoporosis and take the next test after 5 years.
- T-score between -2 and -2.5 | (osteoporosis), get treatment and take another bone density test within a year.4 5
So if you’re younger than 50, you don’t need to test your bone density very often. Adopt a healthy lifestyle and eating habits to lower your risk of developing it at all.
3. PET-CT Scan
PET-CT scans are important for people who have cancer to find out just how much it has spread. However, if you don’t have cancer but take these scans frequently to be on the lookout, they aren’t very effective. The chances of a PET scan actually detecting cancer in a person who is otherwise healthy and has no symptoms, is as low as 1%. In fact, frequent PET-CT scans could actually put you at a higher risk for cancer because of the radiation involved.
We are constantly exposed to radiation from natural sources like the sun. For an average American, this amounts to 3 milisievert (mSv) a year. Exposure to radiation during one PET-CT screening is around 25 milisieverts, and this is unlikely to affect you.6 But radiation damage is cumulative, so the more PET-CTs you take, the more dangerous it becomes for you. The American College of Radiology, in fact, suggests that people should not receive beyond 100 mSV diagnostic radiation in the course of their life. So that amounts to just 4 PET-CT scans.7
As per experts, for older adults, the risk of damage from PET-CT scans is quite low since the cancer resulting from it might take around 20 years to develop. With kids and young adults, however, too many scans and imaging tests become a cancer risk factor. However, if you’re a heavy smoker and are above the age of 55, then routine PET-CTs may be useful in detecting cancer early.
4. Pain Imaging Tests For Back Pain
If you’re experiencing pain in your lower back region, you might request for an MRI or X-ray to detect its source. However, this is probably not the best idea. When it comes to lower back pain, less is more as they usually go away on their own in about a month. MRIs and X-rays scans might reveal abnormalities in your body which doctors might attribute to your pain, but these are usually seen even in people with no back pain. Because of this, you might be subjected to unnecessary medication and painful surgical procedures that actually worsen your pain.
MRIs and X-rays also increase your radiation exposure, so frequently undergoing them might indirectly put you at a risk for cancer. However, if you’re experiencing back pain along with a high fever, weight loss, incontinence, and weakness in your legs, it is advisable you take pain imaging scans.
5. Bi-Annual Dental Screenings
It’s a commonly accepted knowledge that you need to visit your dentist every 6 months. However, this isn’t a universal rule. Depending on your specific history, you might need to visit them more often or not as frequently. If you’re prone to faster plaque buildup, then you will need to visit your dentist more frequently to get it cleaned up. However, if you maintain good oral hygiene and have healthy sparkling whites, you can probably put off your next dental visit a little longer. To know exactly how often you need to visit the dentist, talk to him/her and work out a plan.
|↑2||What is Osteoporosis and What Causes It? National Osteoarthritis Foundation.|
|↑3||Bone Density Exam/Testing. National Osteoarthritis Foundation.|
|↑4||How Often Should I Get Tested? American Bone Health.|
|↑5||How Often Should Women Have Bone Tests?
|↑6||Understanding Radiation Risk from Imaging Tests.
|↑7||Do CT scans cause cancer? Harvard Medical School.|