How is digital mammography different from a mammogram?


Mammography continues to be the best screening method available for breast cancer. Improvements in imaging, such as digital mammography, produce a quicker, sharper and overall enhanced image to aid in developing faster and more accurate results.

Digital mammography offers potential and practical advantages over traditional mammography and often allows for better cancer detection. These advantages include the following:

  • With digital images, the radiologist can zoom in, magnify, change the contrast of the breast image, or view it in slices, resulting in more precise images and helping reduce the need for repeat screenings.
  • Flexible plates for greater comfort
  • Exams completed in half the time of traditional mammography
  • Digital images can be sent and stored electronically, providing women with the ability to maintain an electronic file of mammograms as a reference to help radiologists better track changes. Additionally, the digital images are available almost instantly and can be transmitted electronically around the world.

The most important advantage to digital mammography is the ability to use advanced computer and electronic technologies to manipulate the image in order to better “see” certain breast tumors that are difficult to identify on a standard mammogram. Studies show that along with superior image quality, digital mammograms greatly benefit women who are younger than 50, have dense breasts and are pre- or perimenopausal.

Digital mammography records the x-ray images of the breasts as computer code instead of on film, as with conventional mammography. Because radiologists can magnify or zoom in on areas of the digital image, it may enable them to detect subtle differences in breast tissue better than a conventional mammogram. However, studies have not shown that digital mammography is more effective at detecting cancer than conventional mammography, except perhaps in women who have dense breasts and are younger than 50. Regardless of your age, it's worth asking if your facility offers digital mammograms, because the images can be stored and retrieved electronically, which makes long-distance consultations with other specialists easier.

Technology is advancing the use of mammograms for breast cancer screening. In this video, Karla Lewis, RT, of Coliseum Medical Centers, explains why low-dose digital mammograms are an improvement.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Traditional screen film mammography works by compressing a woman’s breast against two plates and taking an x-ray snapshot of the breast from above on a film placed below. This is like taking a picture with a 35 mm camera.

Digital mammography, however, is like taking a snapshot with a digital camera. Instead of using an x-ray film, solid-state detectors convert the x-rays into electrical signals that enable the physician to see the breast in high resolution on a computer screen. The quality is better than screen film mammography because the details stand out—especially for women who have dense breast tissue. Because the image is saved on a computer, it makes it easier to look for changes in the breast by comparing current images with past images.

Dutch researchers reviewed data from almost two million screening mammograms and compared the results of screen film mammography to digital mammography. The researchers noticed that digital mammography was more sensitive for detecting cancers, with a detection rate per thousand of 6.8, instead of 5.6 with screen film mammography.

Additionally, digital mammograms more accurately detected clinically significant tumors, which can lead to cancers. This is because digital mammography makes it easier to detect clinically significant high-grade lesions over low-grade lesions, which are not life threatening and could be safely left alone without unnecessarily traumatic biopsies, surgeries, or radiation.

The United States Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) concluded that there is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against digital mammography. However, this may change as the experts review newer research.

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Dr. Michael L. Paciorek, MD
Diagnostic Radiologist

Digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT, or 3D mammography) provides more information than a traditional mammogram. In this video, Michael Paciorek, MD, of Mercy Health, explains the differences between traditional and digital mammography.

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