Beam hardening

Last revised by Mohammad Taghi Niknejad on 30 Dec 2023

Beam hardening is the phenomenon that occurs when an x-ray beam comprised of polychromatic energies passes through an object, resulting in selective attenuation of lower energy photons. The effect is conceptually similar to a high-pass filter in that only higher energy photons are left to contribute to the beam, and thus, the mean beam energy is increased ("hardened") 1.

This same phenomenon is exploited in radiography and CT by the use of metal filters to "pre-harden" the x-ray spectrum and minimize low energy photons (see filters) 2.

In CT, beam hardening from a very dense target (e.g. bone or iodinated contrast) may result in characteristic artefacts. CT beam hardening artefacts have two distinct manifestations: streaking (dark bands) and cupping artefacts.

Streaking artifact

The streaking artefact appears as multiple dark streaking bands positioned between two dense objects, for example, at the posterior fossa. Streaking may also occur along the long axis of a single high attenuation object. It is the result of the polychromatic x-ray being ‘hardened’ at different rates according to rotational position of the tube/detector.

Cupping artifact

Beam hardening will cause the middle of the image to decrease in value, not increase edge value, as the lower energy photons preferentially get attenuated over longer path lengths. As the beam becomes harder and passes a higher mean beam energy, the lower attenuation coefficient means the CT number goes down for longer paths.

If uncorrected during CT reconstruction, these differences in the expected attenuation profile lead to a perceived peripheral dense appearance.

Since simple beam hardening correction is built into modern scanners, the cupping artefact is not usually encountered during clinical imaging. The characteristic "cupped shaped profile" of the CT numbers is best demonstrated when scanning phantoms 1,2.

Beam hardening reduction

Most modern CT scanners utilize filters in an attempt to overcome beam hardening. An attenuating substance (usually metallic) is often appropriated to harden the beam before it reaches the patient.

CT scanners must often be calibrated with vendor-specific phantoms to overcome unavoidable beam hardening artefacts such as cupping.

Streak artefacts can sometimes be effectively reduced by increasing tube voltage (better penetration of high-density objects) or using a dual-energy imaging approach. Many modern scanners are also equipped with metal artefact reduction algorithms that utilize iterative reconstruction to limit beam hardening artefacts 3

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