What is Tomosynthesis?

By Alyssa Speicher August 7, 2017

Tomosynthesis: you may have heard about this breast imaging technique, but do you know what it is, what it does, or how it is improving mammography screenings? Learn more about how this imaging technique can detect breast disease earlier and more accurately than traditional mammography.


What is Tomosynthesis?


Tomosynthesis (Tomo for short) is a big word for 3D mammography. Unlike traditional mammography, it takes multiple pictures of your breast tissue to create a three-dimensional image for your radiologist to interpret. It can be used as a screening test (a regular test looking for breast cancer before symptoms are present) or a diagnostic exam (a test for diagnosing an issue).

Tomo was developed to overcome some of the limitations of traditional mammography. This technique gives radiologists a clearer picture of your entire breast. Think of it this way: a circle is different than a ball, and in a similar way, traditional mammography is different than tomosynthesis.


Tomosynthesis has been shown to:

  • Detect abnormalities that may have been hidden in dense breast tissue or folds due to compression during a traditional mammography
  • Increase early detection of breast disease
  • Decrease false positives, reducing unnecessary biopsies or additional tests
  • Provide greater accuracy in determining the exact size, shape, and location of abnormalities

How does it work?

Tomosynthesis works very similarly to the way that traditional mammography works in terms of length of exam, machine, and your preparation. Both traditional mammography and Tomo require breast compression to obtain the correct images.

Tomo and traditional mammo differ in how the machine takes pictures. Traditional mammography compresses your breasts and uses low-dose x-ray to take four pictures: top, bottom, and each side. With tomosynthesis, a low-dose x-ray sweeps over the breasts in a tube and takes numerous pictures along the way. Then, a computer arranges the pictures into a 3D image set for the radiologist to read. Tomosynthesis can also produce the same two-dimensional pictures as traditional mammography.

Why would I need Tomo?

Women with dense breasts and those at high risk for breast cancer benefit most from Tomo. Early detection is the best defense against breast cancer, and breast cancer screening is the best way to detect breast cancer at its earliest stages when it is most treatable. Tomo can improve early detection and detection in dense breasts. 

Who looks at my images?

After your tomosynthesis mammogram at UVA, a radiologist who specializes in breast imaging will review your images. Your breast radiologist at UVA is specifically trained to interpret breast images, and they know precisely what to look for.

The radiologist will then send your results to your doctor (primary, gynecologist, or other). If you do not have a doctor, reach out to us and we can help you find one!

What about radiation exposure?

When radiologists began using Tomo, patients were concerned due to the increased radiation exposure related to tomosynthesis. At the UVA Breast Care Center, we’ve been using low-dose tomosynthesis which creates the same images as earlier tomosynthesis but with the radiation exposure level of traditional mammography.  It’s the best of both worlds!

Is the cost of Tomo covered?

Tomosynthesis is not yet the standard in breast imaging. Because of this, it is not offered everywhere and many insurance companies will not cover it. If your insurance company does not cover the cost of tomosynthesis, you can opt to pay an out of pocket fee of $82.00 to receive this type of imaging. If your doctor determines that Tomo is the best exam for you, the potential benefit will be worth the cost. 

Ready to make an appointment? Annual mammography is recommended to women over age 40 or women who are at high-risk for breast cancer. Ask your doctor if Tomosynthesis is right for you. Call 434-924-1555 to make your appointment. For more info: UVA Breast Care Program.

Learn more about Tomosynthesis from BreastCancer.org or from the American College of Radiology.


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