Can a CT Scan Show Inflammation in the Neck?

Inflammation in the neck can cause pain, swelling, redness, and stiffness. While there are many potential causes of neck inflammation, some common ones include muscle strain, arthritis, infections, and autoimmune conditions. A CT (computed tomography) scan is an imaging test that can help detect inflammation in the neck and identify its underlying cause.

What is a CT scan?

A CT scan, also known as computed tomography or CAT scan, is a medical imaging procedure that uses x-rays and computer technology to create detailed pictures of the inside of the body. During a neck CT scan, the patient lies still on a table that slides into a large doughnut-shaped scanner. The scanner rotates around the body and takes multiple x-ray images from different angles. A computer then processes this data to generate cross-sectional images (or “slices”) of the neck.

Because it provides more detailed images than a regular x-ray, a CT scan is useful for identifying and evaluating many conditions affecting the neck, including inflammation. The test usually takes under 30 minutes to perform.

Using CT scans to detect neck inflammation

CT scans are not primarily used to diagnose inflammation. However, they can detect signs of inflammation as a secondary finding when scanning the neck for other purposes.

Some indications of inflammation that may be visible on a neck CT scan include:

  • Swelling or enlargement of lymph nodes, tonsils, adenoids or salivary glands compared to the other side of the neck. Inflammation often causes these tissues to enlarge.
  • Fat stranding, which shows up as white wispy streaks in fatty tissues of the neck. This happens when inflammation causes edema or fluid buildup.
  • Thickening or swelling of muscles, tendons or soft tissues compared to the uninflamed side.
  • An abscess or pocket of pus caused by a bacterial infection. This shows up as a fluid-filled cavity in the neck tissues.
  • Enhancement or bright spots in certain areas after intravenous contrast dye is administered. The dye makes inflamed tissues more conspicuous.
  • Throat swelling narrowing the airway passage visible on the scan.

The radiologist will integrate these CT findings with the patient’s symptoms and medical history to determine if inflammation is present. However, a CT scan alone cannot definitively diagnose the specific cause or type of inflammation without other testing.

Advantages of CT for evaluating neck inflammation

There are several benefits to using CT imaging for suspected neck inflammation:

  • It is widely available and fast compared to MRI scans.
  • It provides excellent detail on bone and soft tissues of the neck.
  • It can detect abscesses, enlarged lymph nodes and anomalies in shape or structure of tissues.
  • The use of contrast dye improves its sensitivity for inflammation.
  • It aids in guiding biopsies or drainage procedures of any abscesses or fluid collections.
  • It can be used on patients with pacemakers or metal implants unlike MRI scans.

Overall, while a CT scan is not primarily ordered to diagnose inflammation, radiologists can pick up signs of inflammatory processes in the neck if they are present. CT is a versatile first-line modality for evaluating neck pain, swelling, infection and other symptoms that may be caused by underlying inflammation.