7 Health Tests You Probably Don’t Need

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When your doctor orders a medical test, chances are you don’t protest. But research shows that a number of screenings are unnecessary—and may even do more harm than good. “Besides the extra cost, some tests have risks, such as the radiation from imaging tests,” says Sharecare chief medical officer Keith Roach, MD. Others may show a false positive result, which could lead to needless worry and invasive follow-up procedures. To reduce over-testing, medical organizations have come up with short lists of common procedures that may not be necessary.

Medically reviewed in June 2019.

1. Regular EKGs or Stress Tests

2 / 8 1. Regular EKGs or Stress Tests

For many people, a routine physical exam includes an electrocardiogram (EKG, a screening that uses electrodes to measure the heart’s electrical activity) or stress test (an EKG done while walking on a treadmill). But if you don’t have symptoms and are at low risk for heart disease you may want to skip these tests. According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, there’s no proof that they will prevent heart attacks or help you live longer.

When you may need them: If you have symptoms of heart disease, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations or irregular heartbeat. You may also require one if you have a risk factor for heart disease, such as diabetes.

2. Scans for Back Pain

3 / 8 2. Scans for Back Pain

Battling an aching back? You’re not alone: Low-back pain is the fifth most common reason for a doctor’s appointment. Getting an X-ray, a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may seem like good ways to pinpoint the problem, but these are usually not needed: Research shows that back pain generally goes away on its own within six weeks.

When you may need them: If you have other symptoms such as weakness, numbness or unexplained weight loss. Speak with your physician if you’ve experienced chronic low-back pain for longer than six weeks.

3. Yearly Pap Smears

4 / 8 3. Yearly Pap Smears

Pap smears are often part of a yearly gynecological checkup to detect cervical cancer. But women ages 21 to 65 only need them once every three years, because this type of cancer generally takes 10 to 20 years to develop. And women ages 30 to 65 can wait every five years if the test is combined with one for HPV, a sexually transmitted infection that causes cervical cancer.

When you may need them: You may need more frequent Pap smears if you’ve received treatment for an abnormal Pap smear or cervical cancer.

4. Bone Density Scan

5 / 8 4. Bone Density Scan

The dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) imaging scan—bone density scan—is a common screen for osteoporosis. While the brittle bone disease affects one in 10 seniors, women younger than 65 and men under age 70 usually don’t have it. Instead, they’re typically diagnosed with osteopenia, or low bone density. The problem with getting diagnosed with this precursory condition is that your doctor may prescribe osteoporosis drugs that cause side effects, such as chest pain and heartburn, and may not benefit osteopenia.

When you may need it: If you have a risk factor for osteoporosis, such as history of steroid use, low body weight and rheumatoid arthritis.

5. Head CT Scan for Injured Kids

6 / 8 5. Head CT Scan for Injured Kids

About half of children who go to the emergency room with a head injury are given a CT scan. But in one in three of these cases, they’re not necessary. If it’s a mild concussion, your doctor may just need to watch and wait, says Jack Percelay, MD, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Hospital Care. This approach can prevent a child from receiving excessive radiation: “Children’s brain tissue are sensitive to radiation, which may increase the risk for a brain tumor,” he says.

When kids may need it: Loss of consciousness, vomiting and strange behavior after a head injury are some of the serious warning signs that may warrant a head CT.

6. Vitamin D Test

7 / 8 6. Vitamin D Test

A study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that as many as three in four Americans don’t get enough vitamin D. But this doesn’t mean you need a blood test to screen for a deficiency. There are several simple ways you can make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D, from taking a multivitamin to eating certain foods.

When you need it: If you have osteoporosis or a disease that damages your body’s ability to use vitamin D, you may need a test to determine if you have a significant deficiency.

7. Brain Scans for Headaches

8 / 8 7. Brain Scans for Headaches

A CT scan, MRI or electronencephalography (EEG, a test where electrodes measure the brain’s electrical activity) can identify whether your headache is caused by a tumor or more serious condition. But these pricey screenings are rarely necessary for most headaches. What’s more, CT scans deliver 25 to 300 times the radiation as a chest X-ray.

When you may need it: If you have sudden or explosive head pain, or if your headache is accompanied by vomiting, a seizure, loss of coordination or a change in vision or speech.

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