X-ray exams use ionizing radiation to painlessly produce images of the inside of the body, including internal organs, connective tissue, and bone. The most familiar way of using X-ray is to diagnose broken bones, but X-rays are also used for many other kinds of diagnoses. Mammograms are a form of X-ray that examines the breast tissue while a chest X-ray is a common way to examine the lungs for cancer or infection. Bone densitometry also uses low-dose X-ray to determine bone mineral content and density.
X-rays are electromagnetic waves that are passed through your body and onto an X-ray plate which creates a digital image. Different body parts absorb different amount of radiation. Bones and any metal in your body absorb the most and appear white on the X-ray. Soft tissues appear as shades of gray and any air in your body appears black.
In addition to the simple X-ray exams discussed here, computed tomography (CT) also uses X-rays to produce cross-sectional images which can be combined with sophisticated computer processing to construct 3D images of the body. Fluoroscopy uses continuous X-ray to show moving images of the body. These exams, unlike X-ray, may require the use of a contrast agent.
X-ray exams are the oldest form of diagnostic imaging but still one of the best. They are a fast, easy, and noninvasive way to examine your body and require no special preparation.
X-ray tests are often the first imaging exam you will get to check for a medical problem. Here are some of the major conditions that X-ray is used to diagnose:
- Bone issues – Fractures, abnormalities, infection, arthritis, and cancer.
- Dental problems – Decay, abscesses, bone loss, and placement of wisdom teeth.
- Chest issues – Pneumonia, tuberculosis, enlarged heart, and lung cancer.
- Abdominal problems – Presence and location of foreign objects, problems of the digestive tract including the stomach, liver, intestines, and spleen.
- X-ray exams are a quick, painless, and noninvasive way to detect various abnormalities and diseases.
- An X-ray exam can often provide enough information to diagnose a problem without using more invasive techniques.
- X-ray is very useful in emergency diagnosis and treatment.
- No special preparation is needed for these exams and they do not require the use of contrast.
- X-rays have no immediate side effects and do not remain in the body.
- Exposure to radiation may increase your risk for cancer, however, the amount of radiation used in general X-ray is small and unlikely to increase your cancer risk. The benefit of an accurate diagnosis far outweighs the risk.
- Women should try to avoid radiation exposure if they are pregnant. Inform your doctor or technologist if you are or think you might be pregnant.
- X-ray is typically done in an ARA imaging center and only takes a few minutes to complete.
- You will be asked to remove all metal and jewelry and, depending on the body area being examined, to change into a gown.
- You may be asked to wear a lead shield, often an apron, to protect certain parts of your body from radiation.
- Your technologist will position you on the X-ray machine. You may be standing next to an X-ray machine or lying down on an examination table, depending on the body area being examined.
- The technologist may use pillows and padded props to help position you in order to get the best exam.
- An X-ray machine will be placed near or over the area to be examined.
- You may be asked to hold your breath for a few seconds while the images are being taken. This is common for chest X-ray procedures.
- X-rays cause no sensations in the body and you can resume your normal activities immediately after the exam.
- Wear comfortable, loose fitting clothing. You may want to leave all jewelry, piercings, and any other metal objects at home.
- Make sure to tell your doctor if you have had a barium enema or any exam that used contrast recently. You may have to wait 10 to 14 days before undergoing a general X-ray since contrast can interfere with the results. Whether you must wait also depends on the body part being examined.
- Tell your doctor or technologist if there is any chance that you might be pregnant. It’s best to avoid X-ray tests during pregnancy. If the exam is absolutely necessary, precautions will be taken to minimize radiation exposure to the baby.
A radiologist, a physician specifically trained to interpret radiological examinations, will analyze the images and send a signed report to the provider who referred you to ARA. The physician will then share the results with you. Your report will also be available on the patient portal within 15 days after the exam report is finalized.