X-Rays and Imaging as a Diagnostic Tool
Chances are you’ve had an X-ray taken within your lifetime, whether it was during your regular dental checkup or if you sustained some kind of injury or illness. X-ray technology continues to be used since the concept of medical imaging became common in the late 1800s. Pathologies such as broken bones, fractures, soft tissue injuries and suspicious lesions are often very difficult to detect through a physical exam. This is where x-rays and other imaging can play a role in helping medical professionals to determine the most appropriate diagnosis and course of care.
A little about X-ray technology: X-rays are much shorter than UV rays and are absorbed differently by various tissues in the body. Calcium in our bones for example easily absorbs X-rays while soft tissues such as muscle do not absorb much at all. Based on the absorption rates within the body and the amount and pattern of x-rays that pass through to a detector, an image is produced. This may be a plain film or a digital x-ray image. Sometimes a few positions or angles are required and many times one image is sufficient.
The term “X-ray” is actually short for X-radiation since X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation. Most people understand that in order to obtain a medical image through this technology, there is radiation exposure. When X-rays are used appropriately, there is minimal risk of adverse effects. In comparison, CT and CAT scans (computed tomography and computed axial tomography) also utilize X-rays to achieve three-dimensional images of the body by taking multiple pictures or “slices” of the body. Because of the need for so many single images to create one 3D picture, the radiation dose is exponentially higher and therefore the risk is understandably increased.
Patients and their doctors (medical, chiropractic or naturopathic) should weigh the benefits of obtaining a medical image and the risks associated with it. There are many cases when taking an X-ray or having a CT are medically necessary and can help steer the course for life saving interventions or prevent needless treatments or procedures (e.g. casting an ankle that is not broken).
Equally as important in your discussions with health professionals are the alternatives, something we’ve discussed at length in our blog post about informed consent. Would an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) that does not use radiation be just as helpful in providing answers? Is there another test or diagnostic tool that can further back up the need for imaging? What about access to the technology – will I be on a wait list for months? In most cases, one type of imaging will be more applicable than the others, with all imaging types holding an important position in the world of diagnostics.