Most of us have a basic understanding of what an X-ray is. We have all likely had an X-ray done by our doctor or dentist and know that if something is wrong inside the body, an X-ray is the easiest way to get a look inside. 

We often associate X-rays with broken bones, and while they are useful for that, X-rays can be used to detect and monitor conditions ranging all the way from a minor bone chip to advanced stages of cancer. 

We are sharing everything you need to know in case you ever need to have an X-ray done.

What Is An X-Ray?

X-rays are a type of radiation called electromagnetic waves. X-ray imaging creates pictures of the inside of your body. The images show the parts of your body in different shades of black and white. This is because different tissues absorb different amounts of radiation. Calcium in bones absorbs x-rays the most, so bones look white. Fat and other soft tissues absorb less and look gray. Air absorbs the least, so lungs look black.

The most familiar use of x-rays is checking for fractures (broken bones), but x-rays are also used in other ways. For example, chest x-rays can spot pneumonia. Mammograms use x-rays to look for breast cancer.

When you have an x-ray, you may wear a lead apron to protect certain parts of your body. The amount of radiation you get from an x-ray is small. For example, a chest x-ray gives out a radiation dose similar to the amount of radiation you’re naturally exposed to from the environment over 10 days.

What Can You Tell from an X-ray?

Radiologists often use X-ray technology to take pictures of the organs inside your body. Your doctor will have ordered that X-rays be taken of a certain area of your body so they can evaluate a particular health issue.

This is the most commonly used form of imaging for diagnostic purposes. Without seeing images of the organs and/or tissues in question, your doctor will likely not be able to confidently diagnose your condition and plan your treatment.

An X-ray can detect broken bones, tumors, and even an object that is lodged inside the body. Any part of the body can get an X-ray: head, chest, abdomen, arms, hands, legs, and feet. Your X-rays will allow your doctor to identify any irregularities that may be causing your symptoms.

Here is a list of the problems an X-ray can help to diagnose:

Extremities, Bones and Teeth

Teeth: Dental X-rays can detect various abnormalities in your oral health, including early detection of dental issues that weren’t found on a visual oral exam.

Broken Bones and Infections: The most commonly-known use for X-rays. Infections typically cause tissue reactions which are easily visible in an X-ray, and broken bones would be visible to the naked eye if they weren’t covered by skin.

Osteoporosis and Bone Tumors: You do not have to have a broken bone for an X-ray to be useful. In fact, x-rays are useful for checking for tumors and overall bone density.

Arthritis: Joints can undergo an X-ray, too. Oftentimes, monitoring joint health can help detect the presence and/or escalation of arthritis over time.

Objects: In rare cases, unknown objects can become lodged in interior parts of the body. X-ray contrasts can pick these up right away.


Digestive System: X-rays are often used to diagnose issues with digestion since they are the easiest tool to do so. This process typically uses a substance called barium as a contrast medium.

Organs: Kidney or gallbladder stones can be some of the most painful conditions a person can experience. X-rays will generally show these quickly. X-rays can also be a huge help in identifying other sources of pain within these regions.

Nausea: X-rays are often used to assist in continuous issues in the stomach, often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and swelling since they can be tough to diagnose based only on symptoms.

Swallowed Items: Most common in children, though an adult can manage to swallow a foreign object every now and then.


Chest Pain: Like the stomach, the chest can experience pain that is difficult to diagnose without an X-ray or some other sort of imaging.

Heart Issues: Many kinds of heart failure are visible on a basic X-ray. X-rays can also show blocked blood vessels. In this case, a contrast medium such as iodine is needed. 

Lung Issues: Lung cancer, tuberculosis, Cystic fibrosis can be detected using an X-ray.

Breast Cancer: These tests are known as mammograms.

Can You See Cancer on an X-ray?

Yes, X-rays can be used to help diagnose cancer and to determine the type of cancer.

Bone cancer, breast cancer and lung cancer are the most common forms of cancer diagnosed using an X-ray. In the case of lung cancer, the X-ray will show a visible mass or nodule that will appear as a white spot on the lungs.

How Do You Prepare for an X-ray?

Before your X-ray, it is a good idea to ask your doctor or nurse if there are any specific instructions. This depends on the type of X-ray you need.

  • What to Wear

In general, you undress whatever part of your body needs examination. You may wear a gown during the exam, depending on which area is being X-rayed. You may also be asked to remove jewelry, eyeglasses and any metal objects because they can show up on an X-ray. If possible, plan for this and wear easily removed items to make it easier during your visit.

  • Contrast Material

Before some types of X-rays, the patient is given a liquid called contrast medium. Contrast mediums, such as barium and iodine, help outline a specific area of your body on the X-ray image. You may swallow the contrast medium or receive it as an injection or an enema.

What to Expect During an X-ray

  • During the X-ray

Typically, X-rays are done at the office of your doctor or dentist, an emergency room or the hospital. As the X-ray is happening, a safe level of radiation moves through your body, recording an image. To help get the right views and position, a technologist may help situate you. It is very important that you stay still during the X-ray to get the clearest image possible. The procedure could last anywhere from a few minutes for a bone X-ray to more than an hour if your procedure is more involved. 

  • Your child’s X-ray

If a young child is having an X-ray, restraints or other techniques may be used to keep him or her still. These will not harm your child and will prevent the child from moving during the X-ray exposure and requiring a repeat test. You may be allowed to remain with your child during the test. If you remain in the room during the X-ray exposure, you will likely be asked to wear a lead apron to shield you from unnecessary exposure.

  • After the X-ray

After an X-ray, you generally can resume normal activities. Routine X-rays usually have no side effects. However, if you are injected with contrast medium before your X-rays, drink plenty of fluids to help rid your body of it. Call your doctor if you have pain, swelling or redness at the injection site. Ask your doctor about other signs and symptoms to watch for.

Ask Your Doctor

Most X-rays are saved in a digital form so they can be viewed on-screen within minutes. The radiologist will take a look at the results and interpret what’s going on before sending the report to your doctor. After the X-ray has been done, you should be able to leave immediately. In most cases, you will receive your test results from your doctor within one to two days.

If you are concerned about your bone health, our specialists are always willing to help you reach your optimal health. Osteoporosis is a very serious disease. 

To learn more about bone health or to schedule an appointment with one of our specialists, call us at 800-698-1280.

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