An X-ray is a quick and painless procedure commonly used to produce images of the inside of the body. It's a very effective way of looking at the bones and can be used to help detect a range of conditions.
How X-rays work:
X-rays are a type of radiation that can pass through the body. They can't be seen by the naked eye and you can't feel them. As they pass through the body, the energy from X-rays is absorbed at different rates by different parts of the body. A detector on the other side of the body picks up the X-rays after they've passed through and turns them into an image.
Dense parts of your body that X-rays find it more difficult to pass through, such as bone, show up as clear white areas on the image. Softer parts that X-rays can pass through more easily, such as your heart and lungs, show up as darker areas.
When X-rays are used:
X-rays can be used to examine most areas of the body. They're mainly used to look at the bones and joints, although they're sometimes used to detect problems affecting soft tissue, such as internal organs.
Problems that may be detected during an X-ray include:
Bone fractures and breaks.
Tooth problems, such as loose teeth and dental abscesses.
Scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine).
Non-cancerous and cancerous bone tumors.
Lung problems, such as pneumonia and lung cancer
Dysphagia (swallowing problems)
Heart problems, such as heart failure
Preparing for an X-ray:
You don't usually need to do anything special to prepare for an X-ray. You can eat and drink as normal beforehand and can continue taking your usual medications. It's a good idea to wear loose comfortable clothes, as you may be able to wear these during the X-ray. Try to avoid wearing jewelry and clothes containing metal.
Having an X-ray:
During an X-ray, you'll usually be asked to lie on a table or stand against a flat surface so that the part of your body being examined can be positioned in the right place.
The X-ray machine, which looks like a tube containing a large light bulb, will be carefully aimed at the part of the body being examined by the radiographer. They will operate the machine from behind a screen or from the next room. The X-ray will last for a fraction of a second. You won't feel anything while it's carried out. While the X-ray is being taken, you'll need to keep still so the image produced isn't blurred. More than one X-ray may be taken from different angles to provide as much information as possible. The procedure will usually only take a few minutes.
What happens after an X-ray?
You won't experience any after effects from a standard X-ray and will be able to go home shortly afterwards. You can return to your normal activities straight away.
Are X-rays safe?
People are often concerned about being exposed to radiation during an X-ray. However, the part of your body being examined will only be exposed to a low level of radiation for a fraction of a second. Generally, the amount of radiation you're exposed to during an X-ray is the equivalent to between a few days and a few years of exposure to natural radiation from the environment.
Being exposed to X-rays does carry a risk of causing cancer many years or decades later, but this risk is thought to be very small. For example, an X-ray of your chest, limbs or teeth is equivalent to a few days' worth of background radiation, and has less than a 1 in 1,000,000 chance of causing cancer.