Scans for children

Scans are used to give a detailed image of the brain. They can tell your child's health team whether a tumour is present and, if it is, its size and position within the brain. Scans are used during diagnosis, as well as for monitoring during and after treatment. The most commonly used scans are CT and MRI.

CT Scans

CT, or CAT, stands for Computerised Tomography. This scan uses x-rays to build up a three-dimensional image of the inside of your child's head by taking 'pictures' from different angles.

What should I expect from a CT scan?

The procedure:

  • your child is likely to be given a 'contrast medium' before or during the scan, in form of an injection or a drink, which enables a clearer image to be given from the scan
  • if your child is very young, has claustrophobia or gets anxious, they may be sedated or a play therapist will help them prepare for the scan
  • your child will like on a 'table' and they will be positioned so their head is in the middle of the scanner, it may take some time to get them into the right position
  • staff will leave the room, but they will be able to see, hear and talk to your child
  • if you are not pregnant, you will be able to stay with your child. You may be given a special apron to wear.
  • during the scan, your child may be asked to hold their breath a few times to prevent the image from blurring, but they will still be able to breathe normally.
  • the scan normally takes around 5 - 10 minutes.
  • after the scan, your child will usually be allowed to go straight home. If they were given a sedative, the staff will first check that it is safe for them to go home.

MRI Scans

MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging, this scan uses magnetic fields to build up a three-dimensional image of the brain. Like the CT scan, it takes pictures from several angles to build a detailed picture

What should I expect from an MRI scan?

The procedure:

  • your child is likely to be given a 'contrast medium' in the form of an injection or a drink, which enables a clearer image to be given from the scan
  • if your child is very young, has claustrophobia or gets anxious, they may be sedated, or due to the longer length of an MRI, they may need to have a general anesthetic to keep them safely asleep for the whole scan
  • metal items, such as hair clips, watches, metal belt buckles and jewellery, will need to be removed because the MRI machine uses magnets to take images.
  • your child will lie on a 'table' and their head and shoulders will be moved to fit inside the hole in the centre of the scanner
  • staff will leave the room, but they will be able to see, hear and talk to your child
  • you can stay in the room with your child and may wish to place your hand on their leg for reassurance. You will need to remove anything metal, and tell the radiographer if you are in the first three months of pregnancy
  • the scan is very noisy, so your child may be given headphones or earplugs to wear and you may be able to play music through the headphones.It can be useful to prepare your child before the scan for what they will hear
  • the scan usually takes between 30 - 60 minutes
  • after the scan, your child will usually be allowed to go straight him. If they were given a sedative, the staff will first check that it is safe for them to go home

Before your child's CT or MRI scan, it is important to let the doctors know if the your child gets, or is likely to be very frightened of scans, has any allergies, is on any medications or has had a recent illness.

Important information if your child has an adjustable shunt:

If your child has an adjustable shunt this will need to be reset following an MRI scan, as the magnetic field will change the settings. Keep a note of the settings of your child's shunt and check with the medical team that the correct levels have been reset after the scan. It is also good practice to put the settings on a medical alert bracelet so medics can access them, should they ever need them and you are not there

What other types of scans might my child have?

CT and MRI scans are the most common type of scans your child is likely to have, but there are some other types of scan that may be used to diagnose or find out more about a brain tumour. These include:

  • PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans - these are often used to help detect whether a brain tumour is low grade (slow growing) or high grade (fast growing)
  • Advanced MRI scans - these can help doctors to decide how and when they will treat your child's tumour
  • SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computerised Tomography) - these are similar to PET scans and can be used to help doctors find out more about the tumour and about chemicals within your child's brain

Frequently asked questions

Q. What are the main differences between CT and MRI scans?

  • CT scans use X-rays, whilst MRI scans use magnetic fields.
  • CT scans are quicker and quieter than MRI scans and children tend to find them less claustrophobic.

Q. Are scans dangerous?

  • CT scans - although radiation is used, it is kept at a very low dose. They are used only when they are considered necessary, with the benefits outweighing the risks.
  • MRI scans - are completely safe. There are no risks associated with them, although they are not suitable for people who have metal in their body (for example, skull sections).

Q. How long will we have to wait for the results?

  • This varies between hospitals. Some hospitals are able to give results within a day, whilst others may take around a week. You should be given a time frame for your results by your child's doctor or clinical nurse specialist.

Q. Are scans painful?

  • No, but if they are given a contrast medium, this may make your child feel hot or flushed. This feeling usually lasts about a minute. Less commonly, some people have reported feeling cold after the contrast medium. If your child is given this, they may say that it tastes unpleasant. so it could be a good idea to bring mints or sweets with you to the appointment.


Page last reviewed: 09/2013
Next review due: currently under review

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