An X-ray, also known as radiography, is a common imaging test ordered by a physician to help diagnose, monitor and treat many medical conditions. But what is an X-ray, really? Here’s everything you need to know about getting an X-ray, and what to expect if your doctor orders one.
How X-ray imaging works
The most familiar use of X-rays is checking for broken bones, but they are also commonly used to visualize organs and anatomy inside the chest, lungs and abdomen. X-ray beams pass through your body and are absorbed in different amounts depending on the density of the material they pass through. Dense materials such as bone show up as white on X-rays. The air in your lungs shows up as black. Fat and muscle appear as various shades of gray.
X-rays give your doctor a picture of what is going on inside your body, which can be very helpful in diagnosis a variety of medical conditions, from broken bones, to tumors, to pneumonia.
How to prepare for your X-ray
Most routine radiology exams require no special preparation. However, you should always inform your physician and radiologic technologist if there is any possibility you might be pregnant. Exposure to X-rays during pregnancy can cause a very slight increase in your baby’s chances of developing adverse health effects.
It is important to remove metallic objects to give the radiologist an unobstructed view of the area of interest.
Leave jewelry at home and wear loose, comfortable clothing. It is important to remove metallic objects to give the radiologist an unobstructed view of the area of interest. In general, you’ll undress whatever part of your body needs imaged. You may be asked to wear a (very fashionable, might I add) gown.
A technologist will escort you into the X-ray room and may take a moment to set up the equipment and enter medical record information before beginning your exam.
What an X-ray feels like
Don’t worry, the X-rays are painless and the exam only takes a few minutes. You may be asked to stand, sit or lay on a table, depending on what area of your body is being examined. You will be positioned by the technologist so that the area of interest is in the proper field of view. Pillows, sandbags or other special devices may be used to help you hold the position.
You want your doctor to have the clearest picture possible. Listen for instructions from the technologists, as some exams require you to hold your breath to limit the motion from your lungs.
It is important to hold still once you have been placed into the proper position to minimize motion or blur on the image. You want your doctor to have the clearest picture possible. Listen for instructions from the technologists, as some exams require you to hold your breath to limit the motion from your lungs.
The technologist will walk behind a wall or into the next room to activate the X-ray machine. The machine makes clicks and buzzing sounds during the exposure, but the technologist will let you know when it is appropriate to move freely again and into the next position. Two or three images from different angles will generally be taken.
Interpreting your X-ray results
So, you’ve had your X-ray. Now what? It’s time for your images to be read and interpreted. The X-ray images are saved and archived digitally, and they can be viewed on screen within minutes. You might be asked to wait until the technologist can review the quality of the images first.
A radiologist, a physician specifically trained to interpret radiology examinations, will analyze the images and send a signed report to your primary care or referring physician, who will discuss the results with you. Depending on the cause for imaging and the findings, your doctor may schedule further imaging or follow-up visits.
Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor or radiologic technologist if you have any questions or worries about your X-ray imaging.
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About the author
Grace Glausier is the manager of digital content strategy for Baylor Scott and White Health. A graduate of Baylor University, she is passionate about connecting people through powerful stories and empowering individuals toward better health.