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X-ray

X-rays use radiation to produce images of the inside of your body.

An X-ray is a quick and painless test that can help to diagnose and monitor a number of different health conditions. X-rays are carried out by radiographers (health professionals trained to perform imaging techniques).

X-rays are commonly used to look for fractures in your bones after a fall or injury. They can also show changes in your organs. For example, an X-ray image of your chest can show whether you have an infection in your lungs.

X-rays are a form of radiation. Unlike light radiation (normal light), which is absorbed or reflected by your skin, X-ray radiation passes through your body. An X-ray machine works by projecting a beam of X-rays through the part of your body that your doctor needs to look at. An X-ray sensitive detector then captures the radiation that comes out on the other side of your body in the form of a black and white image. This is called a radiograph.

A radiograph is created as a result of the X-rays being absorbed differently by different structures or organs in your body. Structures inside your body that are dense, such as your bones, absorb X-rays and show as light grey on the radiograph. Less dense structures, like the air in your lungs, let X-rays pass through them and show up as dark grey on the radiograph.

The images captured by an X-ray machine are usually stored digitally and displayed on a computer screen.

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Details

  • Preparation Preparing for an X-ray

    X-rays are usually done as an outpatient procedure in the radiology or imaging department of a hospital or health clinic.

    Your radiographer will discuss with you what will happen before, during and after the test. This is your opportunity to understand what will happen, and you can help yourself by preparing questions to ask about the risks, benefits and any alternatives to the test.

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  • Alternatives What are the alternatives to an X-ray?

    Depending on which part of your body is being looked at, a different type of imaging test may be more appropriate. Alternative tests may include an ultrasound scan, MRI scan or CT scan. Your doctor will discuss with you which test is most suitable.

  • The procedure What happens during an X-ray?

    X-rays usually only take about 20 minutes.

    Depending on the area of your body that needs to be exposed to the X-rays, you may be asked to remove your clothing, put on a hospital gown and take off your jewellery. There will usually be a private area where you can do this.

    You will then go to the X-ray room and your radiographer will help you to get into the right position on the X-ray machine. Alternatively, you may be asked to lie down on an X-ray table or sit in a chair at the side of the table, depending on the part of your body being looked at. You will be asked to stay still and sometimes, particularly if you’re having a chest X-ray, to take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds.

    Your radiographer will operate the X-ray machine from behind a screen, but will be able to see and hear you at all times. He or she may need to take more than one X-ray, and so you may have to get into a number of slightly different positions on the machine.

    The images will then be sent to a radiologist (a doctor who specialises in using imaging methods to diagnose medical conditions).

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  • Aftercare What to expect afterwards

    You will usually be able to go home when you feel ready.

    Your doctor will usually receive a report from the radiologist. He or she may also receive your X-ray images. This can take several days. Before you go home, ask your radiographer when you can expect to get your results.

    If you’re seeing a radiologist, he or she may be able to view your images on a computer screen immediately after having your X-ray.

    It may be possible to ask for a copy of your images on a disc or have them sent to another hospital electronically. This is particularly useful if you will be seeing a doctor in a different hospital or, for instance, if you will be travelling abroad.

  • Risks What are the risks?

    As with every test there are some risks associated with having an X-ray. However, the benefits of having the test usually outweigh these risks. You will be exposed to some X-ray radiation, but the amount you receive isn't considered to be harmful.

    You're exposed to natural background radiation in the atmosphere all the time. For example, the amount of radiation you're exposed to during a chest X-ray is the equivalent of a few days of this background radiation.

    Different radiology tests expose you to different doses of radiation. For example, the amount of radiation you receive from a plain X-ray is lower than other types of radiology tests, such as a CT scan. However, radiographers are trained to keep your exposure to a minimum. Ask your radiographer to explain how these risks apply to you.

    If you’re pregnant

    Although the radiation from an X-ray is generally thought to be safe for adults, it may harm an unborn baby. Therefore, X-rays won’t usually be used on pregnant women unless there is an urgent medical reason.

    If you think you could be pregnant, tell your doctor before your appointment. Your doctor will advise you whether or not to go ahead with the test.

  • FAQs FAQs

    If I have lots of X-rays, will my risk of getting cancer increase?

    Answer

    Having an X-ray may slightly increase the chance of you getting cancer many years later. However, the benefits of having this test usually outweigh the very small risk.

    Explanation

    You have around a one in three chance of getting cancer during your lifetime, even if you have never had an X-ray. The radiation from X-rays may only add to your underlying risk of cancer by a very small amount. For many routine X-ray tests, including those of your chest or your arm or leg, this increase in risk is rare.

    You're exposed to natural background radiation in the atmosphere all the time. The amount of radiation you're exposed to during a chest X-ray is equal to a few days of this background radiation.

    Having other tests, such as a barium enema, exposes you to more radiation, but the increase in your risk of getting cancer is still very small.

    The number of X-rays you need to have will depend on your medical condition. Your doctor will make sure that any X-rays you have will be used to support your treatment. This means that the benefit of each X-ray you have will outweigh the very small increase in cancer risk that it may cause.

    You should let your doctor know if you have had any X-rays or scans recently, as this may mean that an additional test isn't needed.

    I'm not sure whether I'm pregnant – is it safe for me to have an X-ray?

    Answer

    If you’re pregnant, there is a small risk that the radiation from an X-ray may harm your unborn baby.

    Explanation

    Unborn babies may be more sensitive to X-ray radiation than adults. Therefore, if you’re pregnant, you will usually be advised not to have an X-ray.

    If you think you may be pregnant, even if it hasn't been confirmed yet, make sure that you tell your doctor or radiographer. He or she will take this into account when deciding whether an X-ray is suitable for you.

    It's worth bearing in mind that the X-ray beams are focused on the area of your body being examined. If you’re pregnant and need an X-ray image of your head or chest, you may be able to go ahead with the test. With this type of X-ray there is very little exposure to your abdomen (tummy) and pelvis. But if your doctor advises you to have an X-ray of your abdomen or pelvis, a lead apron that blocks X-rays can be used. This will help to protect your unborn baby from the radiation.

    My child needs an X-ray – can I go with him or her?

    Answer

    Yes, if your child is young, it's likely that you will be able to accompany him or her into the X-ray room.

    Explanation

    If you have a young child who needs to have an X-ray, you will usually be allowed to go into the X-ray room with him or her. You may be asked to wear a lead apron. This is to protect your body from radiation and will allow you to stay close to your child when the X-ray is being done.

    If you’re pregnant, or if there is any chance that you could be pregnant, it may not be possible for you to go with your child into the X-ray room. This is because X-rays may be harmful to your unborn baby.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Sources

    • Information for patients having an X-ray. The Royal College of Radiologists. www.rcr.ac.uk, published December 2010
    • Plain radiography/x-rays. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists. www.insideradiology.com.au, published 1 May 2009
    • Medical X-ray imaging. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. www.fda.gov, published 3 July 2013
    • Radiation emitting products. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. www.fda.gov, published 4 March 2010
    • What is a chest X-ray? National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. www.nhlbi.nih.gov, published 1 August 2010
    • X-rays. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, published 16 November 2011
    • Provan D. Oxford handbook of clinical and laboratory investigation. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005:654
    • Personal communication, Dr Daniel Boxer, Consultant Radiologist, Spire Bushey Hospital, 12 September 2013
    • Medical radiation FAQs. Public Health England. www.hpa.org.uk, published 5 August 2009
    • Lifetime risk of cancer. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, published 26 July 2012 
  • Related information Related information

  • Author information Author information

    Reviewed by Kuljeet Battoo, Bupa Health Information Team, August 2013.

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