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Mammogram: How Does it Work?

Medically reviewed by John Paul Abrina, MD · Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Fiel Tugade · Updated Jul 08, 2022

    Mammogram: How Does it Work?

    Mammography is a type of medical imaging technique that uses low-dose x-ray equipment to examine the inside of the breasts. A mammography exam, often known as a mammogram, helps women detect and diagnose breast cancer. Lumps, pain, or any nipple discharge are the most common symptoms.

    A mammography is a good tool for spotting breast cancers, benign tumors, and cysts early on. Early screening and diagnosis who are at high risk for breast cancer, or those who have a history of breast cancer do help in reducing breast cancer fatalities.


    There are two main purposes for the use of a mammogram:

    Screening Mammography

    Screening mammography detects any breast alterations in women who have no symptoms or new breast abnormalities. The goal is to detect cancer before any clinical symptoms may even appear.

    Diagnostic Mammography

    Diagnostic mammography investigates the sudden appearance of a breast lump, breast discomfort, an odd skin look, nipple thickening, or nipple discharge. It is also used to assess abnormal findings on a mammography screening through additional mammogram images that are included in a diagnostic mammogram.


    Technology and advancement led to the breakthrough of three different types of mammograms namely, digital mammography, computer-aided detection, and breast tomosynthesis.

    Digital mammography

    It is otherwise known as full-field digital mammography (FFDM).

    The x-ray film is replaced with electronics that transform x-rays into mammographic photographs of the breast in digital mammography. This is comparable to those used in digital cameras, and their efficiency allows for better images while using less radiation. 

    The radiologist evaluates these mammograms through a computer for long-term archiving. In terms of the patient’s experience, this is somewhat like a traditional film mammogram.

    Computer-aided detection

    These systems look for unusual areas of density, mass, or calcification in digitized mammographic pictures that could signal the presence of cancer. The CAD system highlights these regions on the pictures, signaling the radiologist to examine them carefully.

    Breast tomosynthesis

    This type is also known as three-dimensional (3-D) mammography or digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT). Advanced breast imaging equipment such as this records breast images from various angles and reassembled them (“synthesized”) into a three-dimensional image set. 

    In this sense, 3-D breast imaging is comparable to computed tomography (CT) imaging, which uses a sequence of thin “slices” to rebuild the body in three dimensions.

    How It Works

    During a mammogram exam, two firm paddles squeeze a woman’s breasts to spread out the breast tissue. 

    This compression usually takes place for three reasons:

    • It maintains the breast in place, which reduces the risk of x-ray image blurring due to patient movement.
    • It helps balance out the contour of the breast, which allows x-rays to travel a shorter distance to the detector. This lowers the radiation dose and enhances the x-ray image quality.
    • It permits all tissues to be seen in a single plane to reduce the chance of tiny anomalies being masked by overlying breast tissue.

    An x-ray machine produces a series of x-rays that passes through the breast to a detector on the opposite side. A photographic film plate that captures the x-ray image on film, or a solid-state detector that delivers electronic signals to a computer in order to create digital detector images known as mammograms.

    The radiologist scans for any signs of cancer or non-cancerous (benign) diseases that may need additional testing, follow-up, or treatment.

    Some of the findings that may be seen in the x-ray results are as follows:

    • Calcifications (calcium deposits) in ducts or other tissues
    • Lumps or masses
    • Asymmetric areas on the mammogram 
    • Dense areas found only in one breast or a specific area on the mammogram
    • The sudden appearance of a new dense area

    Key Takeaway

    A mammogram exposes the breasts to low levels of radiation. However, the advantages of mammography outweigh any potential risks associated with radiation exposure. The use of modern machines with minimal doses of radiation then provides x-rays with great image quality.

    Learn more about other Medical Tests here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    John Paul Abrina, MD

    Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

    Written by Fiel Tugade · Updated Jul 08, 2022

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