Definition and Overview

An x-ray is a procedure that uses radiation to take images of a person’s body on the inside. It is primarily used for diagnosing health problems and secondarily for the monitoring of existing health conditions. There are different types of x-rays, each one with specific uses.

How X-rays Work

X-rays work by transmitting high-frequency radiation beams throughout the body. The beams are then captured in images, with different body parts becoming identifiable due to the variation of color in the images. This color variation is based on the density of individual body parts, i.e. an x-ray shows bones as white images and shows lungs as darker images.

Different Types of X-rays

  • Chest x-ray – An x-ray of the chest takes an image of the heart, lungs, blood vessels, the airways, and the lymph nodes in this area. The breastbone, ribs, and collarbone are also included in the image. It also partially shows the upper part of the spine. A chest x-ray is used to diagnose health problems that cause symptoms in the chest area such as pulmonary and respiratory problems and heart problems. In most cases, a chest x-ray involves a total of two images, one taken from the back, and another taken from the side.

  • Spinal X-ray – A spinal X-ray takes an image of the spine and is helpful in detecting diseases and injuries affecting the spine, its joints, and its discs. Some examples of health problems diagnosed with spinal x-rays are fractures in the spine, dislocations, disc problems, infections, and tumors, among several others. However, spinal x-rays are most commonly used in the diagnosis of spine-related problems, such as scoliosis or Spina Bifida. There are different subtypes of spinal x-rays depending on the specific part of the spine. Patients may require a cervical, thoracic, sacrum or coccyx, or a lumbosacral x-ray.

  • Extremity x-ray – An extremity x-ray refers to x-ray scans of the extremities, namely the hand, wrist arm, foot, knee, legs, ankles, and hips. This is commonly required for the detection and inspection of injuries and diseases such as fractures and dislocations. Some examples of conditions that affect the extremity and may require such an x-ray include tumors, osteoporosis, and arthritis.

Advanced X-ray Scans

Aside from the usual x-rays that produce still images of body parts, there are more evolved and advanced types of x-ray imaging methods. These include:

  • Fluoroscopy – These are x-ray scans that produce moving images of body parts.

  • Computed tomography scans – More popularly known as CT scans, these highly detailed scans can provide crucial information in diagnosing problems with any body part. It is currently one of the most in demand scans used in the diagnostic branch of medicine.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging – An MRI employs the use of magnetic fields and radio waves to get a detailed look at specific parts and organs of the body.

  • Positron emission tomography – Also known as a PET scan, this procedure can be conducted on different body parts and organs such as the brain, breast, heart, and lungs.

What to Expect

X-rays are carried out by trained specialists who are highly experienced and skilled in using imaging technology and interpreting the results. General practitioners often refer patients to these specialists, who then report results back to GPs.

When getting your x-ray taken, the procedure will depend on which part of the body is being scanned. You may be asked to stand straight on a flat surface or lie down on a table. Once you are ready, a photographic plate will be placed to the specific part of the body that needs scanning. Within a fraction of a second during which you will be told to stay still, the plate will take an x-ray image, send it to a computer, and printed. Getting an x-ray is perfectly safe and is painless. However, there are some people who should avoid getting x-rays. These include:

  • Infants and children
  • Pregnant women

The main reason why young children and pregnant women should avoid getting an x-ray is for them to avoid the exposure to radiation. The possible dangers, though minimal, should still be considered as these may have an effect on the health of young children and unborn babies.

When Should You See A Radiologist?

Radiography refers to the medical field that focuses on capturing and analyzing images of the inside of a person’s body. Health care professionals who are specially trained in taking and reading x-rays are called radiologists or DOs, which represents osteopathic machine. These health professionals are well trained and board-certified prior to becoming licensed radiologist.

It is time to see a radiologist when you notice unexplained symptoms affecting certain parts of your body. You may also approach a general practitioner, who can refer you to the right radiologist.


  • American College of Radiology: “What Is a Radiologist?”
  • Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (JRSM): “A Clinician’s Guide to Digital X-ray Systems.”
  • Kieffer J.C., Krol A. et al. “Future of Laser-Based X-ray Sources for Medical Imaging.”
  • Inskip P., Ekbom A., Galanti MR. (1995). “Medical Diagnostic X-rays and Thyroid Cancer.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute. • Journal of X-ray Science and Technology: “Clinical Applications of Diagnosis and Therapeutics.”
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