Why Your Doctor Uses Medical Imaging
A doctor uses X-rays to help diagnose a problem. The X-ray enables the doctor to prescribe the appropriate treatment for you and may help the doctor decide whether you need to be referred to a specialist.
Even when the doctor's suspicions are not confirmed, X-rays serve to tell him or her to seek another cause for the problem.
An X-ray can provide this information because it's a form of radiation that can pass through your body. With X-rays, a single picture can be made of what's inside you. If a series of pictures is needed, the doctor might request a CAT (computerized axial tomography) scan, which uses multiple X-rays to film cross-sections, or slices, of your body, or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), which uses magnetic waves, rather than X-rays, to film cross-sections.
The number one reason that family physicians order an X-ray is trauma. Doctors use an X-ray to determine whether the ankle you twisted playing volleyball at the company picnic is fractured or whether there is a break in the wrist you used to brace yourself in a fall down your front steps.
Keep in mind, though, that the X-ray does not show everything. A good doctor will combine information from your history, exam, and his or her clinical experience with the X-ray findings before reaching a diagnosis.
What can doctors see on an X-ray? Large and small fractures are first on the list. With the radiologist's help, a doctor can diagnose compression fractures of the spine, usually caused by osteoporosis. The hip, arm, leg, ankle, hand, wrist, and ribs are other common locations for fractures. Your doctor also may order an X-ray when he or she suspects a lung problem such as pneumonia.
The amount of radiation you receive from an X-ray is very low. According to the Radiological Society of North America, exposure from a chest X-ray is equal to the amount of radiation received in 10 days from everyday sources, such as radon gas in our homes, the sun, and cosmic radiation from outer space. Still, if you fear an X-ray could be harmful, discuss your concerns with your doctor. The radiation exposure from CT scans is significantly higher than from a single X-ray. MRI and ultrasound produce no radiation exposure.
If there is any chance that you are pregnant, be sure you tell any doctor or dentist ordering an X-ray. There is a slight risk that the X-rays will harm your developing child. This is because your child's tissues are growing rapidly, making them more sensitive to radiation than tissues of an adult.
So, for your unborn child's safety, X-rays should not be taken of your abdomen and should be taken of other parts of your body only after you have been fitted with a special shield for your abdomen.