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Dental X-ray - Types, Purpose, Safety/Risks

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    You've recently been to a new dentist and they want you to get a dental X-ray so they can inspect your oral health in more detail. Are you concerned about your test? You should not be.

    Dental X-rays are commonly performed to identify various oral problems and to track down how orthodontic treatment is progressing. Some people need to get X-rays more often than others and the frequency is determined by current oral health, age, history of gum disease, and any existing symptoms of oral disease.

    In the post that follows, we will dissect dental X-rays, focusing on their purpose and types, as well as the potential risks they carry. Continue reading.

    What Do Dental X-rays Diagnose?

    woman having a dental x ray taken

    Most often dubbed X-rays, dental radiographs show images of your teeth, soft tissues, and surrounding structures that dentists employ to examine your oral health. They use extremely small doses of radiation.

    X-rays pass through the body as well as most objects. The beam can be aimed at the area of interest, which is how we can get X-rays on different parts of the body. It can be done at the dentist's office if they own a radiography machine.

    This is the oldest form of medical imaging and an important diagnostic tool for detecting cavities, abnormalities, abscesses, infections, cysts, impaction wisdom teeth, and other conditions of the mouth that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye.

    Besides getting to find and treat dental problems early, they also help monitor bone loss and decay beneath existing fillings.

    Types of Dental X-rays

    The most common type of X-ray is intraoral, which can be divided into the following categories:

    • Occlusal X-rays - these capture images of an entire arch of teeth in the mouth, be it the lower jaw or upper jaw; the jaws should be closed during the screening
    • Bite-wing X-rays - these show the upper and lower teeth; you need to bite into a special piece of paper during the screening
    • Panoramic X-ray - these rotate around your head capturing all the teeth and soft tissue, including impacted teeth and any incoming teeth. It is often required before performing wisdom tooth extraction surgery.
    • Periapical X-rays - what a periapical X-ray shows are any alterations to the root and bone surrounding the tooth; they provide a detailed image of the whole tooth, from the crown to the root and beyond

    With extraoral X-rays, the focus is placed on the jaw and skull. They cannot detect cavities or other similar dental problems.

    Risks of X-rays

    So, are dental X-rays safe? The short answer is, that they do not carry direct risks to the person having them. The levels of radiation that are used for the picture are insignificant and pose no health threat to adults or children.

    Plus, the technician will wrap a collar or thyroid shield around your neck as well as a lead apron over your chest that will keep the rest of the organs safe. For some pictures, the X-ray film is placed directly in your mouth during the oral exam. For others, the film is contained within the machine itself.

    Be it as it may, it’s worth noting that radiation is cumulative. It is never lost. The more radiation you are exposed to during your lifetime, the bigger risks you are running for different diseases. That’s why X-rays should not be done for no reason.

    Panoramic Dental X-ray

    panoramic dental x ray image

    A panoramic X-ray, or panoramic radiography, is a 2D dental examination that takes a picture of the entire mouth area and its structures, including the teeth and jaws. It exposes patients to ionising radiation but the dose is so small that it’s insignificant if performed once every few years.

    A two-dimensional (2D) examination means that the X-ray image is flat. The film for the panoramic X-ray is usually kept in the machine, as opposed to conventional intraoral X-rays where the X-ray film is put inside the mouth.

    Are panoramic dental x-rays necessary?

    Yes, they are. Sometimes a condition cannot be examined in depth with a small X-ray, since a wider view of adjacent dental structures is necessary to do so. This is when panoramic X-rays come into play. They enable dentists to inspect tooth positioning, maxillary sinuses, wisdom tooth and supporting bone abnormalities, to name a few.

    Not to mention, the diagnostic tool comes in handy when someone needs to plan treatment for dental implants, dentures, extractions, and braces.

    However, this doesn’t mean that every time you need to undergo a dental X-ray, it’s going to be a panoramic one. These aren’t carried out routinely.

    Is it harmful?

    There is no direct harm from using an X-ray machine. Patients feel no discomfort or pain during and after the test. The dangers of panoramic dental X-rays pivot around the cumulative effect of radiation.

    That is, every X-ray exam you do over your lifetime has you exposed to different levels of radiation, which increases your risk of brain tumours, parotid gland tumours, breast cancer, and other diseases.

    It’s important to recognise the fact that we are exposed to radiation on a daily basis and are not even aware of it. It’s called background radiation and it’s present in the environment.

    Can You Have an X-ray When Pregnant?

    Pregnant women can have X-rays but most doctors would be reluctant to order the test unless absolutely necessary.

    The main concern with this is that no one can say exactly how much radiation is going to get to the baby.  Even though X-rays typically don’t emit big amounts of radiation, it’s hard to predict what will happen to the foetus. High doses of radiation could lead to birth defects, miscarriages, and even cancer later in life.

    Of course, with dental X-rays you are exposed to tiny amounts of radiation, making it a safe exam for pregnant women. According to both the American Pregnancy Association and the American Dental Association, the amount of radiation present in dental X-rays is not enough to cause harm to the mother or baby.

    Can Children Get X-rays?

    boy getting dental x-ray at a dental lab or dental clinic

    Yes, a child dental X-ray is possible and there is no harm in doing so. Most X-ray machines these days offer digital imaging. Digital radiography, or digital X-rays, are much more advanced because they employ 90% less radiation than before. Hence, they are safe for children.

    X-rays allow you to see both primary teeth and permanent teeth. Because they shift over time and after certain dental procedures, the diagnostic tool helps track that movement, including emerging teeth.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Dental X-Rays

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