Are X-rays Harmful for Your Body?

An X-ray is a painless and quick procedure that is used to produce images of the organs present inside your body-especially your bones. Beams of X-ray pass through the body and are absorbed by different structures in varying amounts. A detector placed on patient’s body takes up the rays and forms an image from them. The quantity of X-rays absorbed by a particular structure depends upon the density of that structure. Materials with high density such as metal and bones show white on X-ray. Air present in lungs appears as black. Muscle and fat appear as gray.

Are X-rays Safe?

Many individuals are concerned about getting exposed to the radiation during X-rays. However, during an X-ray examination, the area of your body that is being examined is exposed to radiation of a low level for a short time. For the majority of the time, doing an X-ray is fine as the exam may help your physician find out the cause of your problem and decide on your treatment. The information your physician gets from the diagnostic X-ray may even save a life.

Generally, the quantity of radiation that you get exposed to while undergoing an X-ray is equivalent to getting exposed to natural environmental radiation ranging between a few days and a few years.

X-ray exposure does increase your risk of genetic malformations, tissue damage and cancer many decades or years later; however, this risk of cancer is believed to be quite small.

For instance, an X-ray examination of your limbs, teeth or chest is equal to exposure for a few days to background radiation. The chances of cancer with this radiation exposure are less than 1 in 1,000,000.

The risks and benefits of getting X-ray examination are weighed before it’s done. You should discuss with your physician or radiographer regarding the potential benefits and risks beforehand in case you are concerned about the procedure.

Weighing the Benefits and Risks

While the risk from single X-ray exposure is very low; still, an individual’s accumulated exposure over a lifetime to radiation may be significant.

Hence, you should discuss your concerns regarding medical imaging procedures with your physicians. Ask for alternative procedures that do not use radiation, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or ultrasounds, which would provide similar results.

For majority of the patients, the benefits of X-rays far outweigh risks associated with exposure to radiation.

Who is at Most Risk due to Radiation Exposure?

Children: Since children are developing and growing, the cells of their body are dividing rapidly. These rapidly dividing cells are very prone to DNA damage due to radiation exposure and becoming cancerous. However, these effects usually occur 15-20 years after they have been exposed to X-rays.

Obese or overweight patients: Stronger radiation doses are needed in larger patients to obtain an image of good quality. The X-ray exposure doubles for every 6 cm of soft tissue.

Pregnant females: X-ray radiation increases the birth defect risks in unborn children, especially if the mother is exposed to X-ray during early gestation.

Why is an X-ray Done?

After discussing are X-rays safe, let’s discuss why are they done. X-rays are done to examine many parts of your body. They are used mainly to examine problem in the joints and bones; however, sometimes, they may be used to determine problems of the soft tissues including your internal organs.

Some of the problems that are detected during X-ray are:

  • Breaks and fractures of bones
  • Problems of tooth including dental abscesses and loose teeth
  • Scoliosis (it is characterized by abnormal curve formation of your spine)
  • Cancerous and non-cancerous tumors of bone
  • Problems of lungs such as lung cancer and pneumonia
  • Dysphagia (problems of swallowing)
  • Heart problems including heart failure
  • Cancer of the breast
  • Swallowed items (in case your kid has accidently swallowed some item such as a coin or key, X-ray image will help in locating the object)
  • Arthritic changes of the joints can be seen on X-rays. Progression of arthritis can be tracked on X-ray images.
  • X-rays may also be utilized to guide surgeons or physicians while conducting certain procedures. For instance, during coronary angioplasty, which is conducted for the widening of narrowed coronary arteries, X-rays are used to guide a long, flexible, thin tube (catheter) along the arteries. 

How to Prepare for an X-ray

Different preparations are required for different kinds of X-rays. You should ask your nurse or physician for specific instructions.

Generally, you have to undress the part of the body that requires examination. You may be given a gown to wear during the procedure, depending upon which area of your body is being examined. You will also be required to remove eyeglasses, jewelry and any type of metal objects as they may show on the image of an X-ray.

What Happens During the X-ray?

During the procedure, you will be told to either stand straight against a surface or lie on a flat table. A technologist may use sandbags or pillows to maintain your body in the necessary position. The X-ray machine produces radiation of safe level, which passes via your body and an image is recorded on a plate specialized for this. An X-ray can’t be felt. When the X-ray is being done, you have to remain still. You may be asked to keep your breath on hold so that you remain still and there is no blurring of image.

Multiple images may be recorded from different positions to provide maximum information. The examination usually takes only few minutes.

What are Contrast X-rays?

After discussing are X-rays safe and why is an X-ray done, here’s more to know. In certain cases, a contrast agent is given to the patient before carrying out an X-ray. This is done to increase the clarity of soft tissues on X-rays.

The various kinds of X-rays, which are done using contrast agent, are:

  • Barium swallow: The patient is instructed to swallow barium to highlight upper digestive tract.
  • Barium enema: To highlight the lower digestive tract, barium is entered through the rectum.
  • Angiography: Iodine is given via a blood vessel to demarcate the heart and its arteries.
  • Intravenous urogram (IVU): To demarcate the urinary bladder and kidneys, iodine is given via a blood vessel.

A contrast X-ray may require special preparation and it will take more time to perform the procedure.

What Happens after an X-ray?

You can resume your normal activities after the X-ray procedure. There are no side effects of routine X-ray procedures. However, if you have undergone a contrast X-ray, you should drink lots of fluids after the X-ray to help your body get rid of the contrast agent. Call your physician if you develop swelling, redness or pain at the site of injection.

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