X-rays are efficient, painless diagnostic tests that produce images of the interior of the body. X-ray beams pass through the body, but they are absorbed in different amounts depending on the density of the tissue they pass through. Dense materials, such as bone and metal, show up as white on X-rays. The air in the lungs shows up as black. Fat and muscle appear as varying shades of gray.

For some types of X-ray tests, a contrast medium, such as iodine or barium, is introduced into the body to coat and highlight certain areas.

Benefits of X-rays

X-rays are valuable diagnostic tools that help to determine the existence and extent of a variety of medical and dental conditions. In some cases, specialized types of X-rays, such as mammograms or bone density scans, rather than general X-rays, are used. In others, X-rays may be followed by further diagnostic imaging such as MRI scans, CT scans or ultrasound.

Teeth and Bones

Because bones and teeth are very visible on X-rays, many problems, including the following, can be located and diagnosed through X-rays:

  • Tooth decay, fracture or infection
  • Bone fracture or infection
  • Arthritis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Bone cancer

Lungs, Heart and Breast

X-rays are frequently employed to diagnose disorders of the thoracic region. These may include

  • Lung infections, such as pneumonia or tuberculosis
  • Heart enlargement
  • Breast cancer

Blood Vessels

Injecting a contrast material with iodine can assist in illuminating sections of the circulatory system to diagnose blockages or other abnormalities.

Digestive Tract

Through the use of a barium contrast medium, administered orally or by enema depending on the area being examined, many digestive issues can be successfully diagnosed. In addition, items mistakenly swallowed, usually by children, such as coins, can be easily viewed on X-rays.

Risks of X-rays

X-ray equipment emits only a small amount of radiation. The risks of radiation exposure are, therefore, quite limited and the chance that X-rays will cause cell damage or mutation is extremely low. Because a fetus is more susceptible to harm from radiation, pregnant woman should always inform their doctors before having X-rays.

Although X-rays do not cause pain, patients may sometimes be discomforted by the positions they are asked to assume during the process of being X-rayed. If contrast material has been administered, patients may experience a few side effects, such as a feeling of warmth in certain parts of the body, lightheadedness, or a metallic taste in the mouth. It is also possible that some patients will be allergic to the contrast dye. Rarely, such a reaction may be severe, but radiologists are prepared for such a contingency.

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