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X-ray — Overview describes what to expect during an X-ray imaging exam.

An X-ray examination uses electromagnetic radiation to make images of your bones, teeth and internal organs. Simply put, an X-ray allows your doctor to take pictures of the inside of your body.

One of the oldest forms of medical imaging, an X-ray is a painless medical test that can help your doctor in diagnosis and treatment — even in emergency situations. It's a fast, easy and safe way for your doctor to view and assess conditions ranging from broken bones to pneumonia to cancer. Many different types of X-rays, such as bone or chest X-rays, exist. The type your doctor uses depends on what part of your body is being examined and for what purpose.

How do you prepare for an X-ray?

Different types of X-rays require different preparations. Ask your doctor or nurse to provide you with specific instructions.

In general, you undress the area of your body that needs examination. You may wear a gown to cover yourself during the exam, depending on which area is being X-rayed. You may also be asked to remove jewelry, eyeglasses and any metal objects or clothing that may obscure the X-ray image, because these objects can show up on an X-ray.

You may be asked to wear a lead apron to shield your sex organs from exposure to the X-rays. At very high doses, radiation can damage a woman's eggs or a man's sperm. Because you're exposed to a small amount of radiation during most X-rays, the lead apron is used as a precaution.

At high doses, radiation can be harmful to a fetus. Always inform the X-ray technologist if there's any possibility that you might be pregnant. Your doctor may suggest that you either forgo the X-ray exam or, if one is necessary at the time, take precautions to minimize radiation exposure to the fetus.

X-ray of kidney stone
This X-ray using contrast reveals a kidney stone at the junction of the kidney and the tube that connects the kidney to the bladder (ureter).

Before some types of X-rays you're given a liquid called contrast medium. Contrast mediums, such as barium and iodine, help outline a specific area of your body on X-ray film. You may swallow the contrast medium, or receive it as an injection or an enema. The contrast medium appears opaque on X-ray film, providing clear images of structures such as your digestive tract or blood vessels.

If you're to receive a contrast medium before an X-ray, tell your doctor if you have a history of allergy to X-ray dye, such as iodine.

What can you expect during an X-ray?

X-rays are performed at most doctors' offices, dentists' offices, emergency rooms and hospitals - wherever an X-ray machine is available. If you need an X-ray, you're brought to a room with an X-ray machine and table- or wall-mounted equipment containing X-ray film or a specialized plate for digital recording.

The process
As you lie, sit or stand between the X-ray machine and the X-ray film or plate, the technologist or a doctor who specializes in interpreting X-rays and other imaging tests (radiologist) positions your body to obtain the necessary views. He or she may use pillows or sandbags to help you hold the proper position. The technologist then aims the machine at the area of your body that needs examination. For dental X-rays, the dentist or dental hygienist places a small piece of film in your mouth, behind the teeth being X-rayed. You're asked to bite down on the paper tab around the film, to hold the film in place. Some dentists are beginning to use digital X-rays, which use an electronic sensor instead of film to digitally record images that can be viewed and stored on a computer.

Once you're in the proper position, the technologist enters a shielded control booth. During the X-ray exposure, you remain still and hold your breath to avoid moving, which can cause blurring of the images on the film. The technologist may take X-rays from multiple angles - for example, one from the front and one from the side of your chest.

An X-ray procedure may take only a few minutes for a bone X-ray, or more than an hour for more involved procedures, such as those using a contrast medium.

Your child's X-ray
If a young child is having an X-ray, restraints or other immobilization techniques may be used to help keep him or her still. These will not harm your child and will prevent the need for a repeat procedure, which may be necessary if the child moves during the X-ray exposure. You may be allowed to remain with your child during the test. If you remain in the room during the X-ray exposure, you're typically given a lead apron to wear to shield you from unnecessary exposure.

For most X-rays, you feel no discomfort other than the hardness of the X-ray table or the temperature of the room, which may be kept cool to keep the equipment from overheating. It may be necessary to compress momentarily the body part being examined. This compression may be uncomfortable, but the discomfort lasts only briefly during the X-ray exposure. If you're having a test that requires contrast medium, ask your doctor what to expect.

Resuming normal activities
After an X-ray, you generally can resume normal activities. Routine X-rays usually have no side effects. However, if you receive an injection of contrast medium before your X-rays, call your doctor if you experience pain, swelling or redness at the injection site. Ask your doctor about other signs and symptoms to watch for pertaining to your specific X-ray procedure.

Last Updated: 12/20/2007
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