A neck X-ray, also known as a cervical spine X-ray, is an X-ray image taken of your cervical vertebrae. This includes the seven bones of your neck that encase and protect the top section of your spinal cord.
A neck X-ray also shows the surrounding structures, including the:
- vocal cords
- trachea, or windpipe
- epiglottis, or the flap of tissue that covers your windpipe when you swallow
An X-ray is a form of radiation that passes through your body to expose a piece of film, forming an image of your body.
Dense structures like bones appear white on X-rays because very little radiation can pass through them to expose the film on the other side.
Soft tissues are less dense. They include:
- blood vessels
That means more radiation can pass through them. These structures will appear dark gray on the X-ray image.
Your doctor may request a neck X-ray if you have a neck injury or persistent numbness, pain, or weakness in your upper extremities.
The neck is particularly vulnerable to injury, especially in falls, car accidents, and sports, where the muscles and ligaments of the neck are forced to move outside their normal range. If the neck is dislocated or fractured, the spinal cord may also be damaged. Neck injury caused by a sudden jerking of the head is commonly called whiplash.
Your doctor will check the X-ray image for the following:
- fractured or broken bones
- swelling in or near your airway
- thinning of the neck bones due to osteoporosis
- bone tumors or cysts
- chronic wear on the disks and joints of your neck, which is called cervical spondylosis
- joints that are pushed out of their normal positions, which are called dislocations
- abnormal growths on the bones, or bone spurs
- spinal deformities
- swelling around the vocal cords, which is called croup
- inflammation of the tissue that covers your windpipe, which is called epiglottitis
- a foreign object that is lodged in your throat or airway
- enlarged tonsils and adenoids
X-rays are very safe and generally have no side effects or complications. The amount of radiation used in a single X-ray is quite small. If you have many X-rays, your risk of illness from radiation exposure increases.
Children and unborn babies are especially sensitive to radiation. Tell your doctor if you’re pregnant so that precautions can be taken during the procedure. If you’re pregnant and must have a neck X-ray, you’ll be given a lead vest to cover your abdomen to keep radiation from harming your fetus. Children will also be given a lead shield to cover their abdomens to protect their reproductive organs from the radiation.
A radiology technologist will perform the X-ray. It will take place in a hospital radiology department or your doctor’s office. You’ll be asked to remove any clothing and jewelry on your upper body. Metal can interfere with the X-ray equipment.
You’ll be asked to lie down flat on the X-ray table, and the X-ray machine will be moved over your neck area. You must be very still and hold your breath for a few moments while the image is taken so that it won’t be blurry. The radiology tech will probably ask you to lie in several different positions so that the X-ray can be taken from multiple angles. The procedure is painless and generally takes 15 minutes or less.
The radiology technologist will develop the X-rays and send them to your doctor within a few days.
If your bones and tissues appear normal on the X-ray images, you probably don’t have bone spurs, spinal deformities, or cervical spondylosis. If any of these appear on your X-rays, your doctor will discuss your treatment options with you.
If your doctor orders a neck X-ray, it will probably be a painless process with no side effects. Discuss any concerns you have with your doctor. After your X-ray images are processed, your doctor will be able to determine if you have an injury or other complications that require treatment.