X-rays are a type of radiation called electromagnetic waves. X-ray imaging creates pictures of the inside of your body. The images show the parts of your body in different shades of black and white. This is because different tissues absorb different amounts of radiation. Calcium in bones absorbs x-rays the most, so bones look white. Fat and other soft tissues absorb less, and look gray. Air absorbs the least, so lungs look black.

The most familiar use of x-rays is checking for broken bones, but x-rays are also used in other ways. For example, chest x-rays can spot pneumonia. Mammograms use x-rays to look for breast cancer.

When you have an x-ray, you may wear a lead apron to protect certain parts of your body. The amount of radiation you get from an x-ray is small. For example, a chest x-ray gives out a radiation dose similar to the amount of radiation you’re naturally exposed to from the environment over 10 days.

However, if you’re pregnant or suspect that you may be pregnant, tell your doctor before having an X-ray. Though the risk of most diagnostic X-rays to an unborn baby is small, your doctor may consider another imaging test, such as ultrasound.

Tests and Procedures

An X-ray is a quick, painless test that produces images of the structures inside your body — particularly your bones.

For some types of X-ray tests, a contrast medium — such as iodine or barium — is introduced into your body to provide greater detail on the images.
X-ray technology is used to examine many parts of the body:

Bones and Teeth

  • Fractures and infections. In most cases, fractures and infections in bones and teeth show up clearly on X-rays.
  • Arthritis. X-rays of your joints can reveal evidence of arthritis. X-rays taken over the years can help your doctor determine if your arthritis is worsening.
  • Dental decay. Dentists use X-rays to check for cavities in your teeth.
  • Osteoporosis. Special types of X-ray tests can measure your bone density.
  • Bone cancer. X-rays can reveal bone tumors.


  • Lung infections or conditions. Evidence of pneumonia, tuberculosis or lung cancer can show up on chest X-rays.
  • Breast cancer. Mammography is a special type of X-ray test used to examine breast tissue.
  • Enlarged heart. This sign of congestive heart failure shows up clearly on X-rays.
  • Blocked blood vessels. Injecting a contrast material that contains iodine can help highlight sections of your circulatory system to make them visible on X-rays.

Radiation Exposure

Some people worry that X-rays aren’t safe because radiation exposure can cause cell mutations that may lead to cancer. The amount of radiation you’re exposed to during an X-ray depends on the tissue or organ being examined. Sensitivity to the radiation depends on your age, with children being more sensitive than adults.

Generally, however, radiation exposure from an X-ray is low, and the benefit from these tests far outweighs the risks.

However, if you’re pregnant or suspect that you may be pregnant, tell your doctor before having an X-ray. Though the risk of most diagnostic X-rays to an unborn baby is small, your doctor may consider another imaging test, such as ultrasound.

Contrast Medium

In some people, the injection of a contrast medium can cause side effects such as:

  • A feeling of warmth or flushing
  • A metallic taste
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Itching
  • Hives

Different types of X-rays require different preparations. Ask your doctor or nurse to provide you with specific instructions.

What to Wear

In general, you undress whatever part of your body needs examination. You may wear a gown during the exam, depending on which area is being X-rayed. You may also be asked to remove jewelry, eyeglasses and any metal objects because they can show up on an X-ray.

Your Child's X-ray

If a young child is having an X-ray, restraints or other techniques may be used to keep him or her still. These won’t harm your child and will prevent the need for a repeat procedure, which may be necessary if the child moves during the X-ray exposure.

You may be allowed to remain with your child during the test. If you remain in the room during the X-ray exposure, you’ll likely be asked to wear a lead apron to shield you from unnecessary exposure.

During the X-ray

X-ray machine produces a safe level of radiation that passes through your body and records an image on a specialized plate. You can’t feel an X-ray.

A technologist positions your body to obtain the necessary views. He or she may use pillows or sandbags to help you hold the position. During the X-ray exposure, you remain still and sometimes hold your breath to avoid moving so that the image doesn’t blur.

An X-ray procedure takes only a few minutes for a bone X-ray.

After the X-ray

After an X-ray, you generally can resume normal activities. Routine X-rays usually have no side effects. However, if you’re injected with contrast medium before your X-rays, drink plenty of fluids to help rid your body of it. Call your doctor if you have pain, swelling or redness at the injection site. Ask your doctor about other signs and symptoms to watch for.

X-rays are saved digitally on computers, which can be viewed on-screen within seconds. A radiologist typically views and interprets the results and sends a report to your doctor, who then explains the results to you. In an emergency, your X-ray results can be made available to your doctor in minutes.

Specific Examinations

What is abdominal x-ray?

Abdominal x-ray is a commonly performed diagnostic x-ray examination that produces images of the organs in the abdominal cavity including the stomach, liver, intestines and spleen.

What are some common uses of the procedure?

Abdominal x-ray is often the first imaging test used to evaluate and diagnose the source of acute pain in the abdominal region and/or lower back as well as unexplained nausea and vomiting.

Abdominal x-ray is also performed to help diagnose conditions such as:

  • Kidney and bladder stones and gallstones
  • Intestinal blockages
  • Perforation of the stomach or intestine
  • Ingestion of foreign objects
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm

What is Bone X-ray (Radiography)?

A bone x-ray makes images of any bone in the body, including the hand, wrist, arm, elbow, shoulder, spine, pelvis, hip, thigh, knee, leg (shin), ankle or foot.

What are some common uses of the procedure?

A bone x-ray is used to:

  • Diagnose fractured bones or joint dislocation.
  • Demonstrate proper alignment and stabilization of bony fragments following treatment of a fracture.
  • Guide orthopedic surgery, such as spine repair/fusion, joint replacement and fracture reductions.
  • Look for injury, infection, arthritis, abnormal bone growths and bony changes seen in metabolic conditions.
  • Assist in the detection and diagnosis of bone cancer.
  • Locate foreign objects in soft tissues around or in bones.

What Is a Chest X Ray?

This test is done to find the cause of symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, chronic cough (a cough that lasts a long time), and fever. Chest x rays help doctors diagnose conditions such as pneumonia (nu-MO-ne-ah), heart failure, lung cancer, lung tissue scarring, and sarcoidosis (sar-koy-DO-sis). Doctors also may use chest x rays to see how well treatments for certain conditions are working. Also, doctors often use chest x rays before surgery to look at the structures in the chest.

Lower extremity radiography is another way of saying x-ray images of the toes, feet, ankles, lower leg, knee, upper leg or hip. These types of examinations are performed to detect conditions such as fractures, soft tissue damage and arthritis. A physician will request this procedure when you have an injury to a lower extremity or you experience unexplained pain in the area.

The paranasal sinuses are a group of air-filled cavities located in the facial area. The maxillary sinuses are located under each of the eyes, the frontal sinus is located in the area of the forehead directly above the nose, the ethmoidal sinuses are located in the area of the eyes and the upper part of the nose, and the sphenoid sinuses are located deeper within the midpoint of the head.

adiography of the paranasal sinuses is performed to detect sinusitis (inflamamation of the sinuses), as well as to detect fluid in the sinuses or polyps. The examination is ordered when a patient experiences pain and pressure in the face, especially when lowering his or her head. Radiography of the sinuses is an x-ray examination. It may be accompanied by a computed tomography (CT) scan.

X-ray images of the skull are taken when it is necessary to see the cranium, facial bones or jaw bones. These examinations often are performed when a patient has experienced a head injury, is having head pain or is suspected of having a sinus infection. Among other things, x-ray exams of the skull can show fractures.

Upper extremity radiography is the production of x-ray images of the fingers, hand, wrist, elbow, forearm, upper arm or shoulder. These types of examinations are performed to detect conditions such as fractures, soft tissue damage and arthritis. They are commonly requested when a patient has injured an upper extremity or is experiencing unexplained pain or swelling in the area.