An X-ray is a common imaging test that’s been used for decades. It can help your doctor view the inside of your body without having to make an incision. This can help them diagnose, monitor, and treat many medical conditions.
Different types of X-rays are used for different purposes. For example, your doctor may order a mammogram to examine your breasts. Or they may order an X-ray with a barium enema to get a closer look at your gastrointestinal tract.
There are some risks involved in getting an X-ray. But for most people, the potential benefits outweigh the risks. Talk to your doctor to learn more about what is right for you.
Your doctor may order an X-ray to:
- examine an area where you’re experiencing pain or discomfort
- monitor the progression of a diagnosed disease, such as osteoporosis
- check how well a prescribed treatment is working
Conditions that may call for an X-ray include:
- bone cancer
- breast tumors
- enlarged heart
- blocked blood vessels
- conditions affecting your lungs
- digestive problems
- tooth decay
- needing to retrieve swallowed items
X-rays are standard procedures. In most cases, you won’t need to take special steps to prepare for them. Depending on the area that your doctor and radiologist are examining, you may want to wear loose, comfortable clothing that you can easily move around in. They may ask you to change into a hospital gown for the test. They may also ask you to remove any jewelry or other metallic items from your body before your X-ray is taken.
Always tell your doctor or radiologist if you have metal implants from prior surgeries. These implants can block X-rays from passing through your body and creating a clear image.
In some cases, you may need to take a contrast material or “contrast dye” before your X-ray. This is a substance that will help improve the quality of the images. It may contain iodine or barium compounds. Depending on the reason for the X-ray, the contrast dye may be given in different ways, including:
- via a liquid that you swallow
- injected into your body
- given to you as an enema before your test
If you’re having an X-ray to examine your gastrointestinal tract, your doctor may ask you to fast for a certain amount of time beforehand. You will need to avoid eating anything while you fast. You may also need to avoid or limit drinking certain liquids. In some cases, they may also ask you to take medications to clear out your bowels.
An X-ray technologist or radiologist can perform an X-ray in a hospital’s radiology department, a dentist’s office, or a clinic that specializes in diagnostic procedures.
Once you’re fully prepared, your X-ray technician or radiologist will tell you how to position your body to create clear images. They may ask you to lie, sit, or stand in several positions during the test. They may take images while you stand in front of a specialized plate that contains X-ray film or sensors. In some cases, they may also ask you to lie or sit on a specialized plate and move a large camera connected to a steel arm over your body to capture X-ray images.
It’s important to stay still while the images are being taken. This will provide the clearest images possible.
The test is finished as soon as your radiologist is satisfied with the images gathered.
X-rays use small amounts of radiation to create images of your body. The level of radiation exposure is considered safe for most adults, but not for a developing baby. If you’re pregnant or believe you could be pregnant, tell your doctor before you have an X-ray. They may suggest a different imaging method, such as an MRI.
If you’re having an X-ray done to help diagnose or manage a painful condition, such as a broken bone, you may experience pain or discomfort during the test. You will need to hold your body in certain positions while the images are being taken. This may cause you pain or discomfort. Your doctor may recommend taking pain medicine beforehand.
If you ingest a contrast material before your X-ray, it may cause side effects. These include:
- a metallic taste in your mouth
In very rare cases, the dye can cause a severe reaction, such as anaphylactic shock, very low blood pressure, or cardiac arrest. If you suspect you’re having a severe reaction, contact your doctor immediately.
After your X-ray images have been collected, you can change back into your regular clothes. Depending on your condition, your doctor may advise you to go about your normal activities or rest while you’re waiting for your results. Your results may be available on the same day as your procedure, or later.
Your doctor will review your X-rays and the report from the radiologist to determine how to proceed. Depending on your results, they may order additional tests to develop an accurate diagnosis. For example, they may order additional imaging scans, blood tests, or other diagnostic measures. They may also prescribe a course of treatment.
Ask your doctor for more information about your specific condition, diagnosis, and treatment options.