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What are X-rays?

X-rays are a form of radiation (or electromagnetic energy). Visible light and microwaves are other forms of electromagnetic energy.

X-rays are able to go through body tissues. They are used to create pictures of body structures on film or with a computer.

Usually the pictures on film made by X-rays are also called X-rays. More correct names for the pictures on film are radiographs, X-ray images, or X-ray films. However, the term X-ray is commonly used to refer to these images.

Having an X-ray is usually painless. However, it might cause some pain if you have to be in an uncomfortable position while the X-ray is being taken.

Modern equipment produces high-quality images using the lowest possible amount of radiation. Many healthcare providers' offices have their own X-ray equipment.

When are they used?

X-rays are used to help diagnose many diseases and problems. They can show changes in the part of the body being X-rayed. X-rays are better at creating images of some tissues than others. Bones and teeth show up well. Muscles, brain and blood vessels cannot be seen well without the help of dyes or computers. Techniques other than plain X-rays are needed to see these tissues.

How do I prepare for an X-ray exam?

You will need to remove jewelry, eyeglasses, and anything else with metal, especially if it is near the part of your body being X-rayed. Because metal shows up on X-rays, it might be in the way of what your provider is trying to see.

There are no other special preparations for most X-ray exams. If you are having a special X-ray exam that requires preparation, your provider will give you special instructions.

What happens during the test?

Usually you undress to expose the area being examined. You may sit or lie down on a table. You will get in a position that gives a clear view of the part of the body being examined.

The X-ray technologist will put the X-ray machine in the proper position. The technologist will leave the room or go behind a protective screen or wall to take the X-ray image.

It takes only a second for a simple X-ray film to be taken (like taking a photo). You must stay perfectly still while the X-ray picture is being taken. Several films may be taken for different views.

After the X-ray films are taken, they must be developed. The development takes just a few minutes. The X-ray technologist will check the images to make sure no other pictures need to be taken before you leave.

After the technologist has checked the films, your healthcare provider or a radiologist will look at the pictures and interpret them. Radiologists are doctors who have special training in the interpretation of X-ray films and other types of images.

Special types of X-ray exams include:

  • CT scan: A scan that uses X-rays and a computer to produce cross-sectional views of specific parts of the body. Sometimes dyes (called contrast media) are injected into your body to help your provider see specific structures.
  • Venogram: A test that uses a special liquid injected into your veins before the X-rays are taken. The path of the liquid as it travels through the body can be followed with a series of X-ray films. An example of this is an IVP (intravenous pyelogram), which looks at the kidneys and bladder.
  • Barium enema: A test that uses a special liquid passed into the bowel through the rectum. The liquid appears as an opaque or white substance on the X-ray film. It can show abnormalities in the large intestine.
  • Upper GI: A test similar to a barium enema except that you swallow the liquid. Then X-ray films are taken of the stomach area.

What are the benefits of this test?

X-ray exams help your healthcare provider see the inside of your body. They may help your provider diagnose your problem.

What are the risks associated with an X-ray exam?

You can have many plain X-ray exams during your lifetime without significant danger to your health from the radiation. However, if you have X-ray exams too often, you may be exposed to a lot of radiation. Too much radiation can be unhealthy. There is growing concern about the amount of radiation from CT scans. If you have a medical condition that requires repeated CT scans, you should ask your healthcare provider about how much radiation you are being exposed to and whether you can decrease the number of CT scans you need.

You may have an allergic reaction to the contrast dye used in CT scans or venograms.

If you are pregnant, be sure to tell your provider before you have any X-rays. X-rays can hurt an unborn baby.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your provider right away if:

  • You have any worsening of the pain or symptoms you were having before the X-ray.
  • You develop symptoms of an allergic reaction, such as shortness of breath, hives, or lightheadedness, after an X-ray exam that uses dye. If you cannot get your breath or feel like your throat is swelling closed, call 911.

Call during office hours if:

  • You have questions about the X-ray test or its result.
  • You want to make another appointment.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-04-27
Last reviewed: 2010-10-01
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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