A thoracic spine X-ray is an imaging test used to inspect any problems with the bones in the middle of your back.
An X-ray uses small amounts of radiation to see the organs, tissues, and bones of your body. When focused at the spine, it can help spot abnormalities, injuries, or diseases of the bones.
Your spine is divided into three main sections—cervical, thoracic, and lumbar. Your cervical spine has seven vertebrae and makes up your neck. Below it is the thoracic spine, whose 12 vertebrae are attached to your rib cage. Next is the lumbar spine with five vertebrae. The lumbar spine is followed by your sacrum and then your coccyx, or tailbone.
Along with your vertebrae, your spine also has discs of cartilage that pad the spaces between the bones. This allows the upper half of the body to twist and move independently from the lower half. Your body and your brain also communicate using the nerves that travel down the center of your spine.
An X-ray is one way your doctor can help uncover the cause of your back pain, which may be a result of an injury, disease, infection, or other condition.
Your doctor might order a thoracic spine X-ray to further investigate:
- birth defects that affect the spine
- bone spurs
- dislocation of a vertebral bone
- herniated disk
- injury to the lower spine
- low back pain
- multiple sclerosis
- pinched nerve
- signs of cancer
An X-ray is only one of many tests your doctor may use to help determine the cause of your back pain. He or she may also order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, ultrasound, or a computed tomography (CT) scan. Each test provides a different type of image, which allows your doctor to make an accurate diagnosis and choose the proper treatment methods.
All X-rays will expose you to a small amount of radiation. The levels are considered safe for adults and typically are harmless.
However, it is an important issue for women who are pregnant or could be pregnant. The radiation levels are not considered safe for a developing fetus. Be sure to tell your doctor if you are pregnant or believe you may be pregnant.
According to the Radiology Society of North America, X-rays are standard procedures and involve almost no preparation from the patient (RNSA, 2012 ).
You will need to remove any jewelry and other unnecessary metallic items from your body. These can make the X-ray images harder to read. Make sure to tell your doctor if you have any metal implants in your body from prior procedures.
Before the exam, you will change into a hospital gown to prevent any buttons or zippers on your clothing from affecting your X-ray.
X-rays are performed in a hospital’s radiology department or a clinic that specializes in such diagnostic procedures. Once you are fully prepared, an X-ray technician (radiologist) will help you settle in and place you in the proper position.
The technician may require you to lie in several positions during the test, including on your back, side, and stomach. Some images may be taken while you stand in front of a specialized plate that contains X-ray film or sensors.
As you lay down, the technician will move a large camera connected to a steel arm over your lower back. This will capture the X-ray images of your spine, using film held in the table.
While the images are being taken, you will have to hold your breath and remain still. This provides your doctor with the clearest possible images.
When your radiologist is satisfied with the images, you can change back into your regular clothes and go about your day as normal.
Results from your X-ray may be available on the same day. Your radiologist and doctor will review the images. Then, your doctor will determine how to proceed, depending on what the X-rays show. He or she may order additional imaging scans, blood tests, or other diagnostic measures to help you get an accurate diagnosis and begin treatment.