Learning About Incidental Findings on Imaging Tests

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What are imaging tests?

Imaging tests provide pictures of bones, organs, tissues, and other parts (such as blood vessels) inside the body.

These tests are used to help diagnose medical problems. Tests include:

  • X-rays.
  • Ultrasound.
  • CAT scans.
  • MRIs.
  • PET scans.

What is an incidental finding?

An incidental finding is something extra found by the test. It's something not related to the reason your doctor ordered the test.

For example, a doctor may order a CT scan of your chest to look for a blood clot. There may or may not be a blood clot, but the picture also shows a small growth in your lung.

Incidental findings aren't unusual. People can have all sorts of spots, growths, or bits of damaged tissue inside their bodies without ever having a problem.

As technology gets better at taking detailed pictures of the inside of the body, incidental findings are more common.

What does an incidental finding mean?

Incidental findings can mean different things:

  • The doctor may be able to tell that it is nothing serious. Nothing needs to be done.
  • The doctor may decide it's something he or she wants to keep an eye on. So you will need regular testing.
  • The doctor may be able to tell that it is something serious that needs treatment.
  • The doctor may not be able to tell whether or not it's serious without other types of tests.

Your doctor will decide what to do based on what the finding shows, what the chances are that it is something serious, and what the medical guidelines recommend for such a finding.

If you have had the same test in the past, your doctor may compare the older test results with the newer one to see if there has been a change.

Incidental findings may lead to more tests. This can mean more cost, more time, and more anxiety about your health, maybe for no reason.

On the other hand, further tests might catch a serious problem that can be treated because it was found early. Or they might prove that the finding isn't serious and you don't have to worry about it.

Your doctor can tell you what your options are. Together you can decide if you need treatment or more tests.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.