Despite their name, imaging phantoms aren’t the least bit scary. In designs that range from utilitarian boxes to simulated body parts, including full-body phantom patients, phantoms assess the performance of imaging systems, set baseline standards, calibrate detectors, even train X-ray technologists and clinical staff. Points to consider when your phantoms “give up the ghost” and need to be replaced.

 In 1999, “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” thundered into theaters with light-saber duels, underwater canyons, a pod race and climatic space battles.

Decades earlier, the silent, black-and-white “Phantom of the Opera” skulked across movie screens.

In the ’30s, “The Phantom,” nicknamed the “The Ghost Who Walks,” debuted as a daily newspaper comic strip, years later becoming a full-fledged comic book super hero who vowed to battle “pirates and evildoers” while branding his victims with his distinctive skull ring.

So what comes to mind when you think of imaging phantoms?

Imaging phantoms aren’t ghostly, ghastly or scary. They also aren’t figments of anyone’s imagination. Rather, they are a routine and essential part of medical imaging quality assurance and control.

The International Commission on Radiological Units and Measurement (Bethesda, Md.) defines phantoms as structures containing one or more tissue substitutes that can be used to simulate the X-ray interaction in the body. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast.

For every purpose (or modality) there is a phantom. There are phantoms designed to test X-ray, ultrasound, mammography, PET (positron emission therapy), IMRT (intensity modulated radiation therapy) and CT (computed tomography) devices. And within each modality, there are different phantoms for different purposes. The result is a dizzying array of products. For example, CIRS Incorporated (Norfolk, Va.) manufactures and sells over 60 different imaging phantoms.

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