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What's the Difference Between Interventional and Diagnostic Radiology?

Decades ago, radiology and radiation oncology decided to separate, giving rise to two distinct specialties. But times and technologies have advanced and it is, perhaps, time for these two branches of radiology to consider a close relationship.

What is diagnostic radiology?

Diagnostic radiology is used for the detection of disease and its main goal is to create detailed images of the body, organs and other internal structures with external radiation. The techniques for this include the use of X-ray tubes that emit radiation, radionuclides, ultrasonographic devices and radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation. Diagnostic radiology procedures include plain film examinations, gastrointestinal studies, genitourinary studies, arthrograms, hysterograms and others.

Diagnostic radiology techniques are generally noninvasive, meaning the body is not entered with any equipment or cut open for imaging. However, certain procedures do combine diagnostic radiology techniques with minimally invasive procedures to diagnose and treat a condition. In addition, diagnostic radiology is often used to assist during minimally invasive surgery. Almost all newly reported technical advances are rapidly incorporated into the repertoire of radiology. In any form of medical care, diagnostic radiology plays an integral part in the diagnosis of a disease.

What is interventional radiology?

Interventional radiology, on the other hand, has been described as the surgery of the new millennium, as it is minimally invasive. It primarily involves procedures that are done in a hospital setting and typically consists of placing catheters in a patient or performing other therapeutic maneuvers on a patient. Advanced imaging technology provides high resolution pictures, so interventional radiologists (board-certified physicians who specialize in minimally invasive, targeted treatments) can navigate tiny instruments such as catheters (small tubes) through blood vessels to reach certain parts of the body.

This procedure can treat various conditions non-surgically, including various cancers and liver disease. Interventional radiology procedures reduce side effects typically associated with traditional cancer treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. But side effects, such as fatigue and pain, may occur. Integrative oncology services can help you manage any side effects that you experience during treatment.

Some practices offer nutrition therapy, naturopathic medicine, pain management, oncology rehabilitation, mind-body medicine, spiritual support and other services.

The essential skills of an interventional radiologist are in diagnostic image interpretation, the manipulation of needles and the use of fine catheter tubes and wires to navigate around the body under imaging control. Interventional radiologists are doctors who are trained in radiology and interventional therapy. The range of conditions which can be treated by interventional radiology is enormous and continually expanding. Understanding the development of this field is crucial, as some of the radiological techniques are taking the place of surgery.

Some main conditions treated by interventional radiology are acute and chronic deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary arteriovenous malformations, cancer (liver, kidney, bone and lung), women’s health conditions, vascular malformations and diseases of the lymphatic system. It is important to recognize that the interventional treatment is usually one of several treatment options available ranging from nothing through drug treatment and up to surgery. Each case should be considered on its own merits.

What's the difference? 

The main difference between these two similar fields is that interventional radiology seeks to treat diseases using electromagnetism or radiation, and diagnostic radiology seeks to determine how the body is functioning and to discover if something is wrong.