Written by Brian Krans
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is an X-Ray?

An X-ray is a common imaging test that has been used for decades to help doctors view the inside of the body without having to make an incision.

The X-ray was made public in 1896 with an image of the hand of anatomist Albert von Köliker. In the hundred years or so that followed, this basic X-ray technology has become a key element in the identification, diagnosis, and treatment of many types of medical conditions.

Today, different types of X-rays are used for specific purposes. For example, mammograms are used to examine the breasts and a barium enema is used to detect bowel problems.

Why an X-Ray Is Performed

Your doctor may order an X-ray if he or she needs to look inside your body. For example, your doctor may want to:

  • view an area where you are experiencing pain
  • monitor the progression of a disease, such as osteoporosis
  • see the effect of a treatment method

Some conditions that may call for an X-ray include:

  • arthritis
  • blocked blood vessels
  • bone cancer
  • breast tumors
  • conditions affecting the lugs
  • digestive problems
  • enlarged heart
  • fractures
  • infections
  • osteoporosis
  • swallowed items
  • tooth decay

The Risks of an X-Ray

X-rays use small amounts of radiation. The level of exposure is considered safe for adults. However, it is not considered safe for a developing fetus. Be sure to tell your doctor before the procedure if you are pregnant or believe you could be pregnant. Your doctor may suggest a different testing method that does not use radiation, such as an MRI.

If you are having an X-ray due to a traumatic event that caused pain and possibly a broken bone, you may experience additional pain during the X-ray. The test requires you to adjust your body so that clear images can be taken. This may cause you discomfort. If you are worried, you can ask your doctor for pain medicine prior to your X-ray.

Your doctor will inject you with a contrast dye before some X-rays. This is to improve the quality of the images. The dye—usually iodine —can cause some side effects. These include:

  • hives
  • itching
  • lightheadedness
  • nausea
  • a metallic taste in the mouth

In very rare cases, the dye can cause a severe reaction, such as anaphylactic shock, very low blood pressure, or cardiac arrest.

How to Prepare for an X-Ray

X-rays are standard procedures and involve almost no preparation from the patient.

Depending on the area under review, you may want to wear loose, comfortable clothing that you can easily move around in. You may also be asked to change into a hospital gown for the test.

You will be instructed to remove any jewelry and other metallic items from your body before the X-ray is taken. You should always tell your doctor if you have any metal implants from prior surgeries. These can block the X-rays from passing through your body.

If your test requires contrast dye, a doctor or nurse will give it to you as an injection, an edema, or a pill to swallow before the test.

If your X-ray is examining your intestines, your doctor may tell you to fast for a certain amount of time beforehand, or to clear out your bowels.

How an X-Ray Is Performed

X-rays can be done in a hospital’s radiology department, a dentist’s office, or a clinic that specializes in diagnostic procedures. Once you are fully prepared, a radiologist (X-ray technician) will tell you how he or she needs you to be positioned in order to get the right view.

The technician will most likely require you to lie, sit, or stand in several positions during the test. Some images may be taken while you stand in front of a specialized plate that contains X-ray film or sensors.

In some cases, the technician will move a large camera connected to a steel arm over your body. This can capture the X-ray images of your body using film or sensors held in the table.

You will have to hold your breath and remain still while the images are being taken. This provides the clearest images possible.

The test is finished as soon as your radiologist is satisfied with the images gathered.

After an X-Ray

After the test, you can change back into your regular clothes and go about your normal activities.

Your radiologist and doctor will review the X-rays and discuss your condition. Results from your X-ray may be available the same day.

Your doctor will view the X-rays and the radiologist’s report, and determine how to proceed. He or she may order additional imaging scans, blood tests, or other diagnostic measures to help you get an accurate diagnosis and begin treatment.

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