The two main types of mammogram machines are film-screen machines and full-field digital machines. Both types perform the same function and are used in the same manner. The only significant difference between the two types of mammogram machine is in the style of image produced. Film-screen mammogram machines record the images onto traditional film, while full-field digital mammography sends the images to a computer.
A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast used to screen for breast cancer when no other symptoms are present, or to diagnose breast cancer after finding a lump during a routine physical exam. During the procedure, a technician places the breasts between two clear plates attached to a special camera. The plates flatten the breasts, and the camera takes pictures from two different angles to provide a full view of the breast tissue, screening for lumps or other abnormalities. The procedure is then repeated on the other breast.
Up until the mid-2000s, film-screen mammogram machines were the most frequently used, and therefore the most researched method of mammography. By 2009, full-field digital mammography was available in the majority of hospitals, typically as a second option rather than a replacement for the film-screen technology. Film-screen mammography was usually lower in cost, making it a more attractive option for those without health insurance.
Both types of mammogram machines are effective at producing images, but a full-field digital mammography machine offers several advantages over film-screen mammography. They tend to take better images of dense breasts, making them the recommended choice for women under age 50 or those with large breasts. The digital image is also easier to manipulate, allowing technicians to zoom in on certain areas and enhance images for clearer readings.
Digital mammogram machines also have a lower recall rate, meaning women who have this type of test are not required to return to the doctor's office for second mammograms due to insufficient findings as often as they can be if they've had film-screen mammography. This is beneficial because mammogram machines emit radiation while in use. Although the amount of radiation involved in a mammogram is negligible and typically not harmful, less exposure to radiation means less risk for potential complications.
Mammogram machines of both types can be used as both screening tools and diagnostic tools. When used for screening, the procedure typically takes about 20 minutes from start to finish. When used for diagnosis, however, procedures can take much longer because technicians need to take pictures from several different angles. Most women experience mild discomfort during the procedure, although some women may find it painful.