A neck X-ray (also called a cervical spine X-ray) is an X-ray image taken of your cervical vertebrae, which are 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 your vocal cords, tonsils, adenoids, trachea (windpipe), and epiglottis (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, such as blood vessels, skin, fat, and muscles, are less dense, so more radiation can pass through them. These structures will appear dark gray on the X-ray image.
If you have a neck injury or persistent numbness, pain, or weakness in your upper extremities, your doctor may request an X-ray. Your doctor will check the X-ray image for evidence of the following conditions:
- 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 (cervical spondylosis)
- joints that are pushed out of their normal positions (dislocations)
- abnormal growths on the bones (bone spurs)
- spinal deformities
- swelling around the vocal cords (croup)
- inflammation of the tissue that covers your windpipe (epiglottitis)
- a foreign object that is lodged in your throat or airway
- enlarged tonsils and adenoids
X-rays are very safe and generally produce no side effects or complications. The amount of radiation used in a single X-ray is quite small, but if you have many X-rays, your risk of illness from radiation exposure increases.
Children and unborn babies are especially sensitive to radiation, so tell your doctor if you are pregnant so that precautions can be taken during the procedure. If you are pregnant and must have a neck X-ray, you will 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.
The test will be performed in a hospital radiology department or your doctor’s office by a radiology technologist. You will be asked to remove any clothing and jewelry on your upper body, because metal can interfere with the X-ray equipment.
You will 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 do not have bone spurs, spinal deformities, cervical spondylosis, etc. If any of these abnormalities appear on your X-rays, your doctor will discuss your treatment options with you.