X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation, just like visible light. In a health care setting, a machines sends individual x-ray particles through the body. A computer or special film is used to record the images that are created.
Structures that are dense (such as bone) will block most of the x-ray particles, and will appear white. Metal and contrast media (special dye used to highlight areas of the body) will also appear white. Structures containing air will be black, and muscle, fat, and fluid will appear as shades of gray.
How the test is performed
The test is performed in a hospital radiology department or in the health care provider's office by an x-ray technologist. The positioning of the patient, x-ray machine, and film depends on the type of study and area of interest. Multiple individual views may be requested.
Much like conventional photography, motion causes blurry images on radiographs, and thus, patients may be asked to hold their breath or not move during the brief exposure (about 1 second).
How to prepare for the test
Inform the health care provider prior to the exam if you are pregnant, may be pregnant, or have an IUD inserted.
If abdominal studies are planned and you have had a barium contrast study (such as a barium enema, upper GI series, or barium swallow) or taken medications containing bismuth (such as Pepto-Bismol) in the last 4 days, the test may be delayed until the contrast has fully passed.
You will remove all jewelry and wear a hospital gown during the x-ray examination because metal and certain clothing can obscure the images and require repeat studies.
How the test will feel
There is no discomfort from x-ray exposure. Patients may be asked to stay still in awkward positions for a short period of time.
What the risks are
For most conventional x-rays, the risk of cancer or defects due to damaged ovarian cells or sperm cells is very low. Most experts feel that this low risk is largely outweighed by the benefits of information gained from appropriate imaging. X-rays are monitored and regulated to provide the minimum amount of radiation exposure needed to produce the image.
Young children and fetuses are more sensitive to the risks of x-rays. Women should tell health care providers if they think they are pregnant.
For additional information regarding why the test is performed and normal and abnormal results, please see the specific x-ray topics:
Mettler FA. Introduction: an approach to image interpretation. In: Mettler FA, ed. Essentials of Radiology. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2005:chap 1.
A.D.A.M. Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, and David R. Eltz. Previoiusly reviewed by Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine (8/5/2010).