Health Tests, Demystified

While you may never look forward to a mammogram or a colonoscopy, these tips and strategies can get you through them without all the worry.

Photo by  Kang Kim

The Test: CT (Computed Tomography) Scan

Recommended: To evaluate conditions like unusual abdominal pain, an abnormal chest X-ray, or an abnormal pelvic exam.

Before: A CT scan is a noninvasive procedure that combines X-ray equipment with sophisticated computer technology to produce multiple images of your body using a doughnut-shaped device. Before the scan, you may have to fast, depending on which part of your body is being checked. You’ll be asked to remove jewelry, eyeglasses, and anything metallic.

During: A CT scan is not nearly as confining as an MRI. It generally lasts 15 to 30 minutes and may require contrast material; you’ll get either an IV injection or drink a chalky-tasting contrast solution. You’ll feel a quick flash of warmth (and possibly nausea) as the injection runs through your body. You’ll also probably hear a lot of whirring and clicking from the machine, and you may be asked to raise your arms or hold your breath. You can ask for extra blankets, as CT scanning rooms tend to be very cold.

The Test: Dental Exam

Recommended: Every six months.

Before: Be even more careful about brushing and flossing well the days before an annual exam. “Your gums will be less likely to bleed,” says Jennifer Salzer, an orthodontist and dentist in New York City. If your dentist will be taking teeth impressions and you tend to gag, don’t eat a few hours beforehand so your stomach will be empty. For a serious dental phobia, call ahead to see if something can be prescribed to relax you.

During: If you have a latex allergy, tell the dentist or the hygienist first. To stay comfortable, ask the dentist to adjust the chair so you’re sitting more upright, and request breaks to sip water and relax your jaw. And believe it or not, wear your hair down. “When women wear their hair up or in a big ponytail or bun, they’re uncomfortable from the start,” says Salzer. Bring an MP3 player if you want, to help you relax.

After: Expect a little jaw soreness. Take aspirin or ibuprofen as directed, and rinse with warm salt water to minimize gum irritation. Call your dentist if you experience any unusual, unexpected pain.

The Test: Blood Work and Blood Pressure

Recommended: At least once a year, usually as part of a routine physical.

Before: A total-cholesterol or fasting-blood-sugar screening usually means no food or drink for 12 hours before the test. You can, though, drink water or black decaffeinated coffee, since only foods and drinks with calories skew results. Mention all over-the-counter and prescription medications and supplements that you take when scheduling this test, as they can affect the results, says Kathleen A. Handal, an emergency-medicine physician in Phoenix. Your blood pressure will be measured at the appointment, too. Avoid caffeine or decongestants beforehand, as both can raise pressure. Wear comfortable clothes and, ideally, layers or a sleeveless top for easy access to your arm.

During: To minimize discomfort after the nurse or the doctor draws blood, ask to have it taken from your nondominant arm. If you’re having a glucose-tolerance test to check for diabetes or gestational diabetes, you’ll have a sample drawn, then you’ll drink a sweet cola- or orange-flavored solution (which may make you feel nauseated), and then you’ll have blood drawn regularly for a few hours. And when your blood pressure is measured, take several deep breaths before the cuff is put around your arm to help prevent “white-coat hypertension,” the phenomenon of spiked blood pressure at the doctor’s office.

After: Elevate your arm for a few minutes to allow the puncture site to close. To avoid bruising, don’t press too hard on it (though bruising can show up if the needle moved around a lot). If your blood pressure is strangely elevated, consider buying an at-home blood-pressure kit so you can test yourself when you’re less nervous.