What is a neck X-ray?

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. 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 surround and protect the top section of your spinal cord.

A neck X-ray also shows the nearby structures, including your:

  • vocal cords
  • tonsils
  • adenoids
  • trachea (windpipe)
  • epiglottis (the flap of tissue that covers your windpipe when you swallow)

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. That means more radiation can pass through them. These structures will appear dark gray on the X-ray image.

Soft tissues include:

  • blood vessels
  • skin
  • fat
  • muscles

Read more: Vertebrae of the neck »

Your doctor may request a neck X-ray if you have a neck injury or pain, or persistent numbness, pain, or weakness in your arms.

The neck is particularly vulnerable to injury. This is especially true with falls, car accidents, and sports, where the muscles and ligaments of the neck are forced to move outside their normal range. If your neck is dislocated or fractured, your spinal cord may also be damaged. Neck injury caused by a sudden jerking of the head is commonly called whiplash.

Your doctor may check the X-ray image for the following:

  • fractured or broken bones
  • swelling in or near your trachea
  • thinning of your 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, which are called bone spurs
  • spinal deformities
  • swelling around the vocal cords, which is called croup
  • inflammation of the epiglottis, 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. However, if you have many X-rays, your risk of problems from radiation exposure increases. Tell your doctor if you’ve had multiple X-rays in the past. They can decide what your risk level is. Generally, body parts that aren’t being evaluated may be covered with a lead shield to reduce the risk of X-ray exposure to these areas.

Children are especially sensitive to radiation. They’ll be given a lead shield to cover their abdomens to protect their reproductive organs from the radiation.

Pregnant women also need to take precautions. If you’re pregnant and must have a neck X-ray, be sure to tell your doctor. You’ll be given a lead vest to cover your abdomen to keep radiation from harming your pregnancy.

A radiology technologist performs the X-ray. It takes place in a hospital radiology department or your doctor’s office. You’ll be asked to remove any clothing or jewelry on your upper body. Metal can interfere with the X-ray equipment.

The procedure is painless and generally takes 15 minutes or less. The technologist first has you lie flat on the X-ray table, and the X-ray machine then moves over your neck area. To keep the image from being blurry, you must stay very still and hold your breath for a few moments while the image is taken.

The radiology tech will likely ask you to lie in several different positions so the X-ray can be taken from multiple angles. You may also be asked to stand up so that X-ray images can be taken from an upright position.

The radiology technologist develops the X-rays and send them to your doctor within a few days.

Your doctor reviews the X-rays to look for signs of any damage or disease. They will use the results of the X-rays to make diagnostic and treatment decisions. Your doctor will discuss the X-ray results with you, as well as their treatment recommendations.

If your doctor orders a neck X-ray, it will probably be a painless process with no side effects. If you have any concerns about the procedure, be sure to discuss them with your doctor. They can answer your questions and tell you more about what to expect with your neck X-ray.