Do I Need an X-ray?

April 13, 2024

by  | Apr 14, 2024 | Emergency Clinic

Do I Need an X-ray? Understanding the Role and Safety of X-ray Imaging

Ever since you can remember, you have loved ice skating and have made it a point to go several times a year. The last few years, though, have been a struggle. Like everyone, life got jumbled with the COVID pandemic and it took a while to try to get back to life as normal. You’ve been back on the ice a few times over the last several months, but you have developed a nagging ache in your foot and wonder if you should see a doctor or just tough it out.

In the realm of medical diagnostics, few tools have revolutionized healthcare quite like the X-ray. Since its discovery by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen in 1895, X-ray imaging has become indispensable for diagnosing a myriad of medical conditions. But the question remains for many: Do I need an X-ray?

X-rays offer a unique glimpse beneath the surface, providing healthcare professionals with critical insights that often cannot be obtained through physical examination alone. Let’s look more closely at when an X-ray might be necessary and how they work.

When Might You Need an X-ray?

These symptoms may prompt your doctor to order an X-ray:

  • Difficulty walking: A sprain will not show up on an X-ray, but an X-ray can tell your provider whether you have a fractured bone.
  • Digestive issues: An x-ray done with a barium contrast can help your doctor identify what’s going on or help locate any swallowed, non-edible items, such as marbles, dice, and keys.
  • Constant swelling: An X-ray can reveal if something is going on, like a bone fracture or fluid around a joint. It can also reveal changes to the soft tissue inside your body that might contribute to internal inflammation.
  • Joint pain or stiffness: Arthritis shows up in x-rays and they allow your doctor to monitor the condition of your joints. The images can also reveal fluid buildup due to a joint injury.
  • Lung issues: X-rays help diagnose chronic lung issues such as lung cancer or more acute conditions such as pneumonia. Changes to the heart affecting your respiration are also visible in an X-ray.

Understanding X-ray Technology

We now know that the rays Röntgen sent through his wife’s hand were high-energy electromagnetic radiation waves. These invisible beams travel through the body and can be taken while you stand, sit, or lie down.

For the procedure, the X-ray tube points toward your body, sending the rays through it and to the film on the other side. Soft tissue like skin, fat and muscle allows the rays to pass through producing a dark gray area in the image. Denser tissue such as tumors or bones allows fewer rays to pass through creating a lighter gray or white area on the film. Identifying broken bones is easy because a dark line shows the break in the white of the bone. X-rays can help detect organ and skeletal injuries and abnormalities and some types of X-rays use iodine or barium to provide higher contrast and greater image detail.

There are three basic categories of x-ray:

  1. Radiography: produces a still image x-ray and is the most used
  2. Computed Tomography (CT) Scan: A person slides into a donut-shaped machine where a series of X-rays are taken from different angles and assembled by a computer producing a detailed 3D image. This type of x-ray produces 100 to 1,000 times more radiation than a chest x-ray.
  3. Fluoroscopy: A continuous X-ray shows images of your organs and soft tissues producing an X-ray movie allowing doctors to see how your body moves. Usually done to examine the heart, intestines, kidneys, lungs, joints, muscles, and bones.

Safety Considerations

While X-rays are safe for the average person, child, or baby and are essential for diagnosis, minimizing radiation exposure remains a priority. Adhering to the ALARA principle (As Low as Reasonably Achievable) ensures radiation doses are kept to a minimum without compromising diagnostic quality.

Key safety considerations include:

  • Pregnancy: Inform your healthcare provider if there is a possibility of pregnancy to mitigate any risks to fetal development.
  • Radiation Oncology: In certain medical contexts, high doses of radiation are beneficial, such as in radiation therapy for cancer treatment.

In the realm of medical diagnostics, X-ray imaging is incredibly useful, enabling timely and accurate diagnoses across a spectrum of conditions. While the safety of X-rays is well-established, it remains important to minimize radiation exposure. The decision to undergo an X-ray should be informed by sound medical reasoning, ensuring optimal patient care while prioritizing safety at every step.

So, if your doctor recommends an X-ray to aid in your diagnosis or treatment plan, rest assured that they are leveraging a powerful tool to help you regain your health and protect your well-being.

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