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X-ray scan

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read
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An X-ray is a type of scan that uses very small amounts of radiation to create a 2D black and white image of the inside of your body. X-rays send small amounts of radiation energy through the body and detect the amount that has passed through to the other side.

Different tissues block or absorb different amounts of the X-rays depending on how dense they are. The denser the matter, the more radiation it will block and the lighter it will appear. For example, bone shows up as white as it blocks a large amount of the radiation, whereas air in the lungs allows more to pass through and shows up as much darker.

More information

X-rays are pain-free and are very quick to perform, taking on average less than 5 minutes. Depending on the area being scanned, you will be either stood up or laid on a special bed, and you will be asked to remove anything metal beforehand, as this can block some of the X-rays and show up as bright white.

X-rays are useful for looking at bones and certain lung, bowel, and heart conditions. Having an X-ray does expose you to a very small amount of radiation; however, because it is such a small amount for a very short amount of time, the risk of future complications from this is minimal. X-rays are usually avoided in pregnancy, although they may be used in emergencies.

X-ray vs other scans

Imaging

X-rays use ionizing radiation to create images. When X-rays pass through the body, they are absorbed in varying amounts by different tissues, creating a two-dimensional image of the internal structures. CT scans also use X-rays, but they employ a computer to create detailed cross-sectional images of the body. It involves taking multiple X-ray images from different angles. MRI scan uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to generate detailed images. Unlike X-rays, MRI does not use ionizing radiation.

Detail and Contrast

X-rays provide good images of bones and dense structures but may not offer as much detail for soft tissues. CT scans offer detailed images of bones, soft tissues, and blood vessels, providing better contrast resolution than traditional X-rays. MRI is particularly effective in visualizing soft tissues, such as the brain, muscles, and organs. It provides excellent contrast between different types of soft tissues.

Radiation Exposure

X-rays involve ionizing radiation, which can pose a risk of radiation exposure. However, the dose is typically low, and the benefits often outweigh the risks. CT scans also use ionizing radiation, and the exposure is generally higher than that of a standard X-ray. MRI does not use ionizing radiation, making it a safer option in terms of radiation exposure.

Application

X-rays are commonly used for imaging bones, detecting fractures, and evaluating the chest and abdomen. CT scans are versatile and can be used for imaging various body parts, including the head, chest, abdomen, and extremities. MRI is often used for detailed imaging of the brain and spinal cord, joints, soft tissues, and organs.

Other Considerations

X-ray scans are quick and often used in emergency situations. Other scans are more time-consuming than X-rays, and the patient needs to lie still during the procedure. Some individuals may experience claustrophobia.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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