Chances are, you’ve had at least one X-ray during your life. X-rays aren’t a new technology, but they are a prolific and popularly appreciated one. What exactly is an X-ray examination, how are they most commonly used, and where do you go if you need one?

How X-Rays Work

You can get an X-ray examination at various healthcare institutions. Depending on the nature of the institution, you can usually get an X-ray at a hospital, an urgent care facility, or even a primary doctor’s office.

The X-ray machine itself uses a beam of X-ray radiation to create an image of the inside of your body. The easiest way to understand this is to think of it as comparable to visible light and color.

In our natural environment, we see objects of many different colors because of how those objects reflect and absorb visible light. Light, of course, is a narrow band of specific wavelengths along the electromagnetic spectrum; different wavelengths of light are interpreted by our eyes as different colors and may be absorbed or reflected by different materials.

For example, many plants have bright green leaves. These leaves reflect green wavelengths of light while absorbing other wavelengths of light. However, the blue flowers on that green plant reflect blue wavelengths of light while absorbing other wavelengths of light.

X-ray radiation occupies a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum than visible light; in this way, it almost functions as a different color – one that we can’t see. In our bodies, different types of tissues and structures absorb and reflect X-ray radiation at different rates. Special equipment is used to produce and measure the impact of X-rays on our bodies, so that tissues capable of absorbing X-rays are highly visible, while materials incapable of absorbing X-rays are practically invisible.

X-rays go straight through the air, so the air (and our lungs) show up as black on an X-ray image. X-rays are partially absorbed by our fat stores, organs, and soft tissues, so these typically show up as gray on an X-ray image. Calcium absorbs X-rays significantly, and our bones are made of calcium, so it’s only natural that our bones show up as bright white on our images.

Most Common Reasons for Using X-Rays

X-rays are most commonly used as a diagnostic examination. After taking an X-ray, physicians and nurses can quickly evaluate specific problems – ones that aren’t visible to the naked eye.

Most people associate X-ray examinations with broken bones (aka fractures). If you suspect that your arm is broken, a doctor can take an X-ray of your arm and verify with perfect accuracy whether the bone is still intact. They can also use the X-ray image to determine the nature of the fracture, including how severe it is, so they can treat it appropriately.

You may also be familiar with X-rays as part of routine dental examinations. Dentists and dental hygienists use oral X-rays to determine the current state of your teeth. If any teeth are chipped, broken, or suffering from decay, the X-ray can reveal it.

However, X-ray examinations are useful for more than just looking at bones and teeth. Pulmonologists and other doctors can sometimes detect pneumonia by looking at an X-ray, and mammograms utilize X-rays to scout for signs of breast cancer. In fact, X-ray examinations are used in a wide variety of screening procedures.

The X-Ray Procedure

What is it like to get an X-ray?

Depending on the nature of your issue, the exact process and positioning of the X-ray device may vary. But in most cases, you won’t be required to undergo any preparation work; for example, you won’t have to fast for a day, nor do you need to take any special medicines before the procedure.

  •       Initial preparation. During the initial preparation, you may be asked to remove certain articles of clothing and/or put on a gown. Your X-ray technician will prepare the equipment and provide you with instructions.
  •       Positioning. Depending on your injury, you may be able to stay seated for your X-ray or you may be required to position yourself according to your technician’s direction. After you’re in place, the technician can make adjustments to the equipment to ensure it takes a solid image.
  •       Covering. Nearby parts of your body may be covered with a lead apron to protect them from radiation. While X-ray machines do produce radiation that can damage your body, the amount of radiation they produce is incredibly small and not a risk to you – it’s equivalent to about 10 days of normal environmental exposure.
  •       Beaming/imaging. Your technician will hide behind protective covering and fire a beam of X-ray radiation. You won’t feel any pain or sensation from it, but it’s important to remain as still as possible to ensure a clean image.
  •       Review. At this point, the X-ray is ready to review. Your technician, and possibly your doctor, will review your X-rays with you to discuss potential health issues and treatment options.

X-rays remain one of our most valuable tools for evaluating specific injuries and health conditions, despite the technology being more than 100 years old. The next time you suffer an injury that might have resulted in a fracture, or the next time you go in for a routine dental examination, you’ll have a greater understanding of the tools of the trade.