Digital Breast Tomosynthesis (3D Mammography)

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Last Reviewed: September 28, 2023

What is digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT)/3D mammogram?

DBT is done using a machine that uses low-dose x-rays to show a three-dimensional (3D) picture of the breast. Standard, two-dimensional (2D) mammograms use one picture of the breast from 2 different angles: top to bottom and side to side. During a 2D mammogram, the breast tissue is compressed (smushed), causing a picture of overlapping breast tissue. This overlapping breast tissue can make the 2D pictures hard to read.

During a 3D mammogram, the machine moves around the breast, taking x-ray “slices” of the breast. These can be seen as single pictures or put together on the computer to make a 3D picture of the breast. This view doesn’t have as much overlapping of breast tissue. 3D mammograms let the radiologist see changes in breast tissue that would be hard to see with 2D images.

How is the test done?

The test is done using a digital mammography machine. This is the same machine used for traditional mammograms, though not all of these machines can do 3D pictures. The breast tissue is placed between clear plastic paddles. The “camera” moves around the breast in an arc, taking many pictures as it goes around.

The machine takes the 3D pictures, as well as a 2D picture for comparison. Compression (pushing down) of the breast lasts just a few seconds longer than during a 2D mammogram, but you are unlikely to feel a difference.

Who should get 3D mammograms?

Everyone who can get a 2D mammogram can get a 3D mammogram. Patients with dense breast tissue may benefit more from the 3D mammogram than those with fatty breast tissue, but even fatty breasts are better seen with DBT.

How do I get a 3D mammogram?

Your healthcare provider can order it, or you can ask for it at the time of the study. Not every facility offers this technology, so ask your mammogram center before you go if they have 3D mammogram available.

Does the test cost more? Will insurance cover it?

3D mammograms do cost more than 2D mammograms. Research has shown that despite higher costs of the test, a 3D mammogram can cost less in the long run due to fewer callbacks for more images, follow-up screening, and biopsies.

Many insurance companies, including Medicare, do cover the extra costs. You should check with your insurance carrier to see if you will be covered.

Is there more radiation exposure in a 3D mammogram?

With older equipment, a patient must have both 2D pictures and 3D pictures taken, which doubles the amount of radiation received. However, newer machines can create the 2D images from the 3D images. This is sometimes called “synthetic” technology. With this technology, only one set of pictures is taken, and the amount of radiation is the same as with a traditional 2D mammogram. Even for studies where the 2D and 3D images are both needed, the total dose of radiation is still under the limit set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the Mammography Quality Standards Act (MQSA).

What are the benefits of 3D mammography?

3D mammogram lowers the number of women called back for more screenings and biopsies due to false alarms by up to 40%. This can lessen anxiety and healthcare costs. 3D mammogram finds up to 40% more invasive breast cancers than a 2D mammogram. 3D mammograms help lead to better and earlier detection of breast cancer.

Resources for more information:

Radiological Society of North America - Breast Tomosynthesis - Digital Tomosynthesis


American Cancer Society (20121). Mammogram Basics. Taken from (2016). Digital Tomosynthesis. Taken from

National Institutes of Health: National Cancer Institute. (2023). Taken from

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). (2022). Breast cancer screening and diagnosis. Taken from

Radiological Society of North America (2018). Breast Tomosynthesis. Taken from


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