So, What is a Mammogram? (Screening vs. Diagnostic)

We talk a lot about mammography on this blog, and it’s certainly an important part of what we do. And although most women are at least somewhat familiar with mammography, did you know that there are actually two different kinds of mammograms: screening and diagnostic? It’s important to understand the distinction.


Mammography Overview

MammographyThere’s no denying the importance of mammograms, as they can detect breast cancer in women in the earliest stage possible, when it is most treatable. So how exactly do mammograms “work”? Here are the basics:

Mammograms use x-rays to produce images of your breasts. These images used to be recorded onto big photo film sheets, but today’s world has gone digital, and mammography is no exception. When you traded in your film camera for a digital one, mammography was doing the same thing. Now many facilities offer digital mammography, in which images are recorded and stored on computers. Radiologists can then view the digital images and adjust in order to see certain areas more clearly. These images can also be saved for consultation with outside specialists.


Screening Mammography

The most routine form of mammography is called a screening mammogram, performed as an annual exam on most women over the age of 40. Women DO NOT need a physician referral to schedule a screening mammogram.

During your screening mammogram, you must undress above the waist and will be given a vest to wear. Then one of our female technologists (the only other person permitted in the room with you during your exam) will position your breast in the mammography equipment as gently as possible, compressing and obtaining two views of each breast: vertical (top to bottom) and horizontal (side to side). This is done by placing the breast on the mammogram machine’s lower, metal plate, below which lies the digital mammography camera. The upper, plastic plate is then lowered to compress the breast for a few seconds while the picture is taken.

The good news is that entire procedure only takes about 15 to 20 minutes, and the breast compression only lasts a few seconds.

The technologist then makes sure the images are clear enough for the radiologists to read, and if so, the examination is finished.


Diagnostic Mammography

If a lump or other abnormality (such as a pain or nipple discharge) is felt during a routine breast exam or if a screening mammogram indicates an abnormality, a more comprehensive type of mammogram is ordered. This exam is called a diagnostic mammogram.

A diagnostic mammogram may take more views of the breast than the initial two views obtained during a screening mammogram, so it will most likely take a little longer. However, radiologists generally analyze diagnostic mammograms immediately after the images are taken, so you will often receive your exam results before you leave the facility.  Additionally, the radiologist may also choose to perform breast ultrasound as well.


The Big Difference

j0315598The most important difference to note is that screening mammograms are intended to be performed on breasts that feel normal during routine breast exams. But if a lump or other abnormality is detected during an exam, make sure your doctor orders a diagnostic mammogram (a physician referral is required for this exam, unlike screening mammograms). Some doctors will make the mistake of automatically ordering a screening mammogram in these cases, but these will not provide enough information to properly examine the abnormalities.

Now that you understand the difference between screening and diagnostic mammograms, take charge of your health by making sure that you get the right exam every time!

Posted in Diagnostic Mammography, Screening Mammography

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