An X-ray is an imaging test that uses small amounts of radiation to produce pictures of the organs, tissues, and bones of the body. When focused on the chest, it can help spot abnormalities or diseases of the airways, blood vessels, bones, heart, and lungs.
Your doctor could order a chest X-ray for a variety of reasons, including to assess injuries resulting from an accident or to monitor the progression of a disease, such as cystic fibrosis. A chest X-ray is an easy, quick, and effective test that has been used for decades to help doctors view some of your most vital organs.
Your doctor may order a chest X-ray if he or she suspects that your symptoms are related to problems in your chest. Suspicious symptoms may include:
- chest pain
- persistent cough
- shortness of breath
These symptoms could be caused by the following conditions, which can be detected using a chest X-ray:
- broken ribs
- a collapsed lung
- emphysema (a long-term, progressive lung condition that causes breathing difficulties)
- heart failure
- lung cancer
- pneumothorax (a collection of air in the space between your lungs and your chest wall)
Doctors agree that exposure to the small amount of radiation produced during an X-ray is well worth it because of the diagnostic benefits the test provides.
However, X-rays are not recommended if you are pregnant because radiation can harm your unborn baby. If you believe you are pregnant, make sure you tell your doctor.
Chest X-rays require very little preparation on the patient’s part.
You will need to remove any jewelry, eyeglasses, body piercings, or other metal on your person. Tell your doctor if you have a surgically implanted device, such as a heart valve or pacemaker. Your doctor may opt for a chest X-ray if you have metal implants. Other scans, such as MRIs, can be risky for people who have metal in their bodies.
Before the X-ray, you’ll undress from the waist up and change into a hospital gown.
The X-ray will be performed in a special room with a movable X-ray camera attached to a large metal arm. You will stand next to a “plate.” This plate may contain X-ray film or a special sensor that records the images on a computer. You’ll be given a lead bib to cover your genitals. This is because your sperm (men) and eggs (women) can be damaged by the radiation.
The X-ray technician will tell you how to stand and will record both front and side views of your chest. While the images are taken, you’ll be asked to hold your breath so that stay completely still—if you move, the images might turn out blurry. As the radiation passes through your body and onto the plate, denser materials, such as bone and the muscles of your heart, will appear white.
After the images have been captured—which should take 20 minutes or so—your part is complete. You can change back into your clothes and go about your day.
The images from a chest X-ray are usually developed on large sheets of film. When viewed against a lit background, your doctor can see an array of problems, from tumors to broken bones.
A radiologist goes over the images and gives your doctor his or her interpretation. Your doctor will discuss the results of your X-ray with you at a follow-up appointment.