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What is an x-ray?

A picture of the internal structures of the body produced by exposure to a controlled source of x-rays and generally recorded on a digital detection plate.

X-ray images will be recorded and shown on a computer screen.

Are you required to make any special preparations?

No. However, please notify the radiology department if you have had a similar x-ray recently or if you are a woman who is or might be pregnant.

Who will you see?

A radiographer will look after you during the examination and explain what is going to happen.

What happens during the x-ray?

You will be taken into the x-ray room where you will stand against a frame or part of the machine. The radiographer will step behind a screen whilst the examination takes place.

You will be asked to stay still and sometimes to take a deep breath in and hold it for a few seconds.

Will it be uncomfortable?

No.

How long will it take?

The process to taking the film will last only a few seconds, but the radiographer may need to take further x-rays in different positions. This usually takes no more than 5–10 minutes.

Are there any risks?

There are risks involved with x-rays, but a plain x-ray uses a small amount of radiation, equivalent to that which we all receive from the atmosphere over a period of 2 or 3 days.

Female patients who are, or might be pregnant, must inform the radiographer, who will cover the lower abdomen or pelvis with a lead apron, as the foetus is more sensitive to radiation. You should not worry about the radiation from the x-ray, and as your doctor feels he needs to investigate a potential problem.

Radiation

People are often concerned about being exposed to radiation during an x-ray. However, everyone is exposed to sources of natural radiation throughout their life. Natural radiation is sometimes referred to as background radiation.

Sources of background radiation include:

  • radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is found in the UK,
  • cosmic rays, a type of radiation that originates from space and is caused by sources of energy, such as the sun and other stars, and
  • foods, many of which, such as nuts, bananas, red meat and potatoes, contain tiny traces of radiation.

The doses that are used in x-rays carry a theoretical risk of triggering cancer at a later date (as does your exposure to background radiation), but the risk is very low.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) has calculated that:

  • an x-ray of your chest, teeth, arms or feet is the equivalent to a few days' worth of background radiation and has a less than one in a million chance of causing cancer
  • an x-ray of your skull or neck is the equivalent to a few weeks' worth of background radiation and has 1 in 100,000 to 1,000,000 chance of causing cancer
  • an x-ray of your breasts (mammogram), hip, spine, abdomen or pelvis is the equivalent of a few months' to a year’s worth of background radiation and has a 1 in 10,000 to 100,000 chance of causing cancer, and
  • an x-ray that uses a contrast fluid, such as a barium meal, is the equivalent of a few years' worth of background radiation and has a 1 in 1,000 to 10,000 chance of causing cancer.

It is important to put the risk of cancer in perspective as everyone has a one in three chance of developing cancer at some point.

X-rays and pregnancy

The doses of radiation that are used in x-rays are not thought to pose a risk to an unborn baby if used during pregnancy.

However, as a precaution, x-rays that directly target your womb, such as an x-ray of your abdomen, are not usually recommended unless there is a clear clinical need. Sometimes, an alternative method that does not involve radiation, such as an ultrasound scan, may be recommended instead.

Also as a precaution, you will usually be asked for the date of your last period before having an x-ray. This is to check that there is no chance that you could be pregnant.

If you have an x-ray and you later discover that you are pregnant, do not panic.

 Even the most powerful types of x-rays, such as a barium enema, are not thought to adversely affect the outcome of pregnancy.

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