What Is a Skeletal X-Ray?

    An X-ray is a common imaging test that allows doctors to view the inside of your body without having to make an incision. X-rays are waves of electromagnetic radiation that are absorbed differently by different tissues. Bones absorb them well because they are dense. A skeletal X-ray specifically looks at your skeleton—which is made up of all the bones in your body.

    Skeletons protect our internal organs and allow us to move around. The skeleton is the frame of the body. It is the support, acting like a clothes hanger for our body. All muscles are attached to the skeleton by ligaments or tendons. When the skeleton is damage, this support is no longer effectively provided, and could cause serious health concerns.

    The discovery of X-rays is attributed to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen. who produced and directed electromagnetic radiation in a wavelength range in 1895.

    Traditional skeletal X-rays can help your doctor identify any damage from a traumatic fall or accident, monitor the progression of a disease, or track the effects of certain treatment methods. Skeletal X-rays are extremely useful tools in the evaluation of bones and have revolutionized diagnosis of skeletal injuries.

    Typical Uses of a Skeletal X-Ray

    Bone X-rays are often done on an emergency basis after a trauma, such as a fall or accident. Your doctor will order an X-ray in any area that is causing extreme pain to check if you have a broken bone.

    According to the National Institutes of Health, your doctor may order a skeletal X-ray if you show any signs or symptoms of conditions that affect the bones, such as pain or swelling (NIH, 2012). These include:

    • arthritis
    • bone cancer
    • cancer that has spread to the bone
    • fractures
    • infections
    • osteoporosis
    • dental conditions

    The Risks of a Skeletal 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. Modern X-ray methods minimize the risk of exposure to radiation and the risk of damage is very low. For most X-rays, the risk is no greater than normal environmental exposure over one year.

    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. Most X-rays are quick and painless. Pain medication may be required if you have a painful condition like a fracture which is being evaluated by the X ray.

    How to Prepare for a Skeletal X-Ray

    According to the Radiological Society of North America, X-rays are standard procedures and involve almost no preparation from the patient (RNSA, 2012).

    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. Lead aprons will be used to protect the reproductive organs.

    You will be instructed to remove any jewelry, eyeglasses, piercing, or 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, such as a heart valve or pacemaker.

    In some instances, your doctor may have chosen to take an X-ray because you have metal implanted in your body. Other scans, such as an MRI, can be risky for those with metal implants.

    How a Skeletal X-Ray Is Performed

    Skeletal X-rays are performed in a hospital’s radiology department or a clinic that specializes in diagnostic procedures. Once you are fully prepared, an X-ray technician—called a radiologist—will tell you how he or she needs you to be positioned in order to get the right view.

    The technician will most likely need you to lie, sit, or stand in several different 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.

    Depending on the area under review, the technician will move a large camera connected to a steel arm over your body. This can capture the X-ray images of your bones using film or sensors held in the table.

    While the images are being taken, you will have to hold your breath and remain still. This provides the clearest images possible.

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

    Following Up After a Skeletal X-Ray

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

    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.