What is an x-ray?

An x-ray is a noninvasive procedure that produces images of the inside of your body. X-rays are quick and painless, and they help medical providers detect and monitor a wide range of conditions. You’re probably already familiar with how x-rays can be used to diagnose broken bones or look for cavities in your teeth. However, their work doesn’t stop there. X-rays can also help your provider look at your heart, lungs, and other internal structures.

X-rays are often performed in hospitals by trained radiologists, but they can also be done at other facilities, including doctors’ offices, urgent care centers, diagnostic imaging facilities, and dentists’ offices.

How does an x-ray work?

X-rays are a type of electromagnetic radiation. They have higher energy than other types of electromagnetic waves, such as visible light, allowing them to pass through objects. X-ray images are taken by passing x-rays through your body onto an x-ray detector (either photographic film or a sensor that makes digital images). 

As the x-rays pass through your body, they’re partially absorbed by your bones and other internal structures. Different types of tissue absorb different amounts of radiation, affecting how clearly they appear in an x-ray image. The denser the tissue, the harder it is for x-rays to pass through, and the brighter it looks in the picture.

Bones are relatively dense, so they absorb more radiation and show up as bright white on the x-ray image. Organs, muscles, fat, and other tissues are less dense, so they show up as shades of gray. The air in your lungs has the least density, so it appears black.

When does a doctor recommend an x-ray?

Your doctor may recommend an x-ray whenever they need to look at your bones, organs, or other internal tissues to diagnose or evaluate a medical condition. Common reasons for x-ray scans include:

  • Breaks, fractures, or infections in bones
  • Arthritis and osteoporosis
  • Dental problems, such as cavities, loose teeth, or abscesses
  • Lung infections and tumors
  • Heart problems 
  • Chest pain
  • Scoliosis
  • Breast cancer
  • Blockages in blood vessels
  • Digestive tract problems
  • Swallowed items

What happens during and after your x-ray?

You probably won’t have to do much — if anything — to prepare for your x-ray. The one exception is if you’re getting an x-ray with contrast. Then, your physician may ask you to avoid food, drink, and certain medications a few hours before your scan. Try to wear loose, comfortable clothing and remove all jewelry before getting your x-ray.

If you’re getting an x-ray with contrast, you’ll get the contrast medium before your start, either by drinking it, having it injected, or receiving it in an enema. Then, when you’re ready for your x-ray, you’ll either lie on a table or stand in front of a flat surface. Your radiographer will aim the x-ray machine at the part of your body that’s being examined. (The machine will look kind of like a tube with a giant light bulb inside.)

The radiographer will tell you how to position your body and ask you to stay still while they capture the pictures. Sometimes, they may take images of the same body part from different angles, so your doctor can get the most complete picture of your condition. You won’t feel the x-ray at all. The process should take only a few minutes unless you get a more complicated procedure, such as an x-ray with contrast.

Are there risks in getting an x-ray?

It’s natural to be concerned about radiation exposure from an x-ray. The level of radiation you’ll be exposed to depends on which part of your body is being examined, but it’s generally low and only lasts a fraction of a second. The National Health Service compares it to the natural radiation you’re exposed to daily from your environment. Their research suggests that an x-ray has less than a 1 in 1,000,000 chance of causing cancer. 

Note: Tell your doctor if you’re pregnant before you get an x-ray. They may recommend an alternate procedure, such as an ultrasound, to avoid exposing your unborn baby to extra radiation.

Contrast mediums used in some x-rays may sometimes cause mild side effects, including itching, a metallic taste, warmness or flushing, nausea, and hives. Severe side effects are rare but may include severe allergic reactions and cardiac arrest.

Your doctor will weigh the potential risks of an x-ray with the diagnostic benefits before making their recommendation. They should be happy to discuss any questions or concerns you have before your x-ray.

What should an x-ray cost?

The national average cost of an x-ray in the U.S. is $125, but the price you pay could differ by hundreds of dollars or more. New Choice Health’s cost comparison tool can help you compare x-ray prices across different facilities in your area so you know you’re getting the best deal. Simply enter your zip code and receive quotes from local healthcare providers so you can compare and save. Click here to get started.

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