Dental X-rays (radiographs) are images of your teeth that your dentist uses to evaluate your oral health. These X-rays are used with low levels of radiation to capture images of the interior of your teeth and gums. This can help your dentist to identify problems, like cavities, tooth decay, and impacted teeth. Dental X-rays may seem complex, but they’re actually very common tools that are just as important as your teeth cleanings.
Dental X-rays are typically performed yearly, or more often if your dentist is tracking the progress of a dental problem or treatment.
Factors affecting how often you get dental X-rays may include:
- your age
- your current oral health
- any symptoms of oral disease
- a history of gum disease (gingivitis) or tooth decay
If you’re a new patient, you will probably undergo dental X-rays so that your new dentist can get a clear picture of your dental health. This is especially important if you don’t have any X-rays from your previous dentist.
Children may need to have dental X-rays more often than adults because their dentists might need to monitor the growth of their adult teeth. This is important because it can help the dentist determine if baby teeth need to be pulled to prevent complications, such as adult teeth growing in behind baby teeth.
While dental X-rays do involve radiation, the exposed levels are so low they’re considered safe for children and adults. If your dentist uses digital X-rays instead of developing them on film, your risks from radiation exposure are even lower. Your dentist will also place a lead “bib” over your chest, abdomen, and pelvic region to prevent any unnecessary radiation exposure to your vital organs. A thyroid collar may be used in the case of thyroid conditions. Children and women of childbearing age may also wear them along with the lead bib.
Pregnancy is an exception to the rule. Women who are pregnant or believe they may be pregnant should avoid all types of X-rays. Tell your dentist if you believe you are pregnant, because radiation is not considered safe for developing fetuses.
Dental X-rays require no special preparation. The only thing you’ll want to do is brush your teeth before your dentist appointment. That will create a more hygienic environment for those working inside your mouth. X-rays are always done before cleanings.
At the dentist’s office you’ll sit in a chair with a lead vest across your chest and lap. The X-ray machine is positioned alongside your head to record images of your mouth. Some dental practices have a separate room for X-rays, while others perform them in the same room as cleanings and other procedures.
There are several types of dental X-rays, which record slightly different views of your mouth. The most common are intraoral X-rays, such as:
- Bitewing: This technique involves biting down on a special piece of paper so your dentist can see how well the crowns of your teeth match up. This is commonly used to check for interdental cavities.
- Occlusal: This X-ray is done when your jaw is closed to see how your upper and bottom teeth line up, and can also detect anatomical abnormalities with the floor of the mouth or the palate.
- Palatal: This technique captures all of your teeth in one shot.
- Panoramic: For this type of X-ray, the machine rotates around the head. Your dentist may use this technique to check your wisdom teeth, plan for implanted dental devices, or investigate jaw problems.
- Periapical: This technique focuses on two complete teeth from root to crown.
Extraoral X-rays may be used when your dentist suspects there might be problems in areas outside of the gums and teeth, such as the jaw.
A dental hygienist will guide you through each step of the X-ray process. They might even step outside of the room briefly while the images are being taken. You’ll be instructed to hold still while the pictures are recorded. Spacers, if they’re used, will be moved and adjusted in your mouth to obtain the proper images.
When the images are ready — instantly in the case of digital X-rays — your dentist will review them and check for abnormalities. If a dental hygienist is cleaning your teeth, the dentist may go over the results of the X-rays with you after your cleaning is done. The exception is if the hygienist discovers any significant problems during the X-rays.
If your dentist finds problems, such as cavities or tooth decay, they’ll discuss your treatment options. If your dentist finds no problems, keep up the good work!
Like brushing and flossing, regular dental X-rays are an integral part of your overall oral health. Having a good checkup can be a relief, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep getting X-rays. Depending on your age, health, and insurance coverage, X-rays may be performed every one to two years. Be sure to commit to your appointments and see your dentist sooner if you experience any pain or other changes in your mouth.