Helical CT has become the preferred method to diagnose urinary calculi in patients presenting with abdominal or flank pain. Recent in vitro studies have shown that CT also can display the internal structure in stones with remarkable detail. Because some stones respond better to SWL than others, knowing stone structure at diagnosis could be helpful in choosing among treatment options. This paper examines the potential for CT to be used in this way. Older CT technology proved to be problematic, in that all studies using low-resolution CT will suffer from an artifact in which stone size affects apparent CT attenuation values. Thus, the observation that stones with low measured CT attenuation break more easily than stones with high attenuation could be attributable entirely to an artifact of stone size. Most stones are composed of more than one mineral, and heterogeneity of composition may contribute to variability in stone response to SWL. Older technology is not useful in evaluating stone composition, but current and emerging CT machines have sufficient resolution to determine the composition and structure of stones inside the patient, provided proper viewing windows are used. Continuing improvement in image resolution in helical CT promises to provide information about stone composition and structure that will ultimately lead to better care for patients with stone disease.
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