X-ray, or radiography, is the oldest and most frequently used form of medical imaging. The technology uses a very small dose of ionizing radiation to produce pictures of the body's internal structures. A form of radiation like light or radio waves, X-rays pass through most objects, including the body. When carefully aimed at a part of the body, an X-ray machine produces a small burst of radiation that passes through the body, recording an image on photographic film or a special detector.
Different parts of the body absorb X-rays in varying degrees. Dense bone absorbs much of the radiation while soft tissue, such as muscle, fat and organs, allow more of the x-rays to pass through them. As a result, bones appear white on the x-ray, soft tissue shows up in shades of gray and air appears black.
X-ray technology is painless and may be used to evaluate the abdomen, bladder, bone, breasts, chest, GI tract, kidneys, spine, uterus and fallopian tubes, among other systems. X-ray is used to help diagnose fractured bones, look for injury or infection, and locate foreign objects in soft tissue. Some exams may use an iodine-based contrast material or barium to help improve the visibility of specific organs, blood vessels, tissues or bone.
Learn how to prepare for an X-ray and what to expect before, during and after the procedure.
Before the Procedure
X-ray requires no special preparation. You may be asked to remove some or all of your clothes and to wear a gown during the exam. You may also be asked to remove jewelry, removable dental appliances, eye glasses and any metal objects or clothing that might interfere with the images.
Women should inform their radiologist if they have an intrauterine device (IUD) inserted or if there is any possibility they may be pregnant.
During the Procedure
The technologist will position you on the X-ray table. You may be asked to wear a lead shield to help protect certain parts of your body. The X-ray machine will be positioned over the specific area of your body to be examined.
You must hold very still and may be asked to keep from breathing for a few seconds while the X-ray picture is taken to reduce the possibility of a blurred image. The technologist will walk behind a wall or into the next room to activate the x-ray machine. You may be asked to change positions, lie on your side or stand up for additional images.
The entire exam, from positioning to obtaining and verifying the images, is usually completed within 15 minutes.
After the Procedure
When the exam is complete, you will be asked to wait until the technologist verifies that the images are of high enough quality for accurate interpretation. Once this has been confirmed, you can return to your normal activities.
After the images have been interpreted, your radiologist or referring physician will discuss the findings with you. Depending on the results of the X-ray, additional tests or procedures may be scheduled to gather further diagnostic information.