X-rays are currently some of the most powerful diagnostic tools in modern medicine. Like nearly any powerful tool, they must be used carefully if you want to get all the benefits while minimizing any dangers associated with their use. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Why are x-rays so powerful?
An x-ray allows your doctor, dentist, or other medical professional to see what’s happening inside you when they otherwise could not. X-rays are able to penetrate materials that light cannot get through, like skin and muscle. It’s difficult to overestimate the medical revolution that resulted from this invention.
Take two Presidential assassinations, for example. William McKinley was shot in 1901, just after the x-ray had been developed but before it came into widespread medical use. It was difficult to find the bullet, and he died eight days later. In 1981, Ronald Reagan survived a similar assassination attempt, largely because x-rays directed surgeons precisely to the bullet’s location and allowed them to see what they were doing.
Why are x-rays concerning?
Although they are powerful tools, every medical professional from a Newark dentist to a Seattle pediatrician will tell you that x-rays can also be dangerous. X-rays emit radiation, which can be very destructive with too much exposure or over too much time.
X-ray radiation penetrates your tissues and internal organs, emerging on the other side to be absorbed by a special film which creates an image of what the radiation has passed through. The problem is that some of the radiation does not make it all the way through: some is absorbed by the tissues, organs, and bones of your body.
What happens with too much exposure?
Anyone who is exposed to large amounts of radiation is at increased risk of developing canner and some other disorders, such as cataracts. The more often you have x-rays, and the longer the x-ray takes, the more lifetime risk you accumulate.
Nearly 35 percent of the radiation exposure the average American will have in a lifetime comes from x-rays and CAT scans. Yet the benefits outweigh the risks in most cases, as is so clearly demonstrated in the stories of McKinley and Reagan.
How do you stay safe?
When you have an x-ray, the technician, doctor, or dentist will help you stay safe by covering parts of your body in a lead apron. Lead aprons can’t be penetrated by the electromagnetic radiation of an x-ray, so any part of the body that does not need to be imaged can be covered up.
You might also get a thyroid shield that goes around your neck to protect these important glands from exposure. The thyroid glands have a unique ability to absorb radiation, so protecting them is always a good idea. Dental x-rays often use lower doses of radiation and are only conducted when absolutely necessary.
What else can I do?
The golden rule with x-rays is to never refuse one and never demand one. If your doctor or dentist thinks it is important, you can certainly discuss with them the pros and cons. However, they will not ask you to get an x-ray if it is not important in diagnosing, treating, or protecting you. At the same time, it’s never a good idea to demand an x-ray if your medical professional doesn’t think it necessary.
When you do get an x-ray, make sure you hang on to it. If you keep your dental x-rays and transfer them when you change dentists, for example, you might not have to get another one. Doctors may be able to use an existing image to make a diagnosis rather than ordering a new one.
X-rays are not a thing to be feared, but they are something to be respected. Use them wisely and only as your doctor suggests, take and ask for all the best safety precautions, and then you can be sure you’re safely getting all the benefits of this important diagnostic tool.