An X-ray is a simple, painless medical test that helps doctors find and treat many health conditions.

X-rays use electromagnetic waves, or radiation, to take images of the inside of your body. The exact amount of radiation absorbed by the body really depends on what’s being examined. In general, the amount of radiation you get from an X-ray is small.

When are X-rays Used?

X-rays are often used to check for:

  • Broken bones
  • Arthritis or other joint problems
  • Pneumonia or other lung problems (chest X-ray)
  • Enlarged heart
  • Breast lumps or cancer (mammogram)
  • Bone density or tumors
  • Foreign objects

Preparing for an X-ray

There are many types of X-ray tests. Your doctor will give you specific instructions about how to prepare for your exam and what to expect during the test. Most are done fairly quickly.

In general, you will be asked to:

  • Remove jewelry, eyeglasses or other metal objects
  • Wear a hospital gown
  • Wear a lead apron to protect certain parts of your body from the radiation

Let your doctor know if you are:

  • Pregnant (or think you could be)
  • Breastfeeding
  • Allergic to contrast dyes or iodine (these are used for some tests)

What to Expect During an X-ray

A technologist will greet you. He or she will take you to the exam room and help position you to get the best pictures of the body part being examined. You may be asked to:

  • Wear a lead apron to protect certain parts of your body
  • Sit, stand or lie down or change positions to get different views
  • Stay very still to avoid blurring the pictures
  • Inhale and hold your breath for a short time during the exam
  • Certain X-ray exams require a dye (also called contrast) to show your doctor even greater detail.
  • Contrast may be given by:
    • Mouth
    • IV (intravenous) through the arm, or into a space in a joint
    • Enema (to look at the rectum, colon and large intestine)

Common X-ray tests

Some common X-ray tests include mammography, fluoroscopy (if you're having certain procedures done), bone density, upper gastrointestinal (GI) tests and barium enema, and are described below.

Mammography

Routine or Digital 3D (tomosynthesis) mammography are X-ray pictures of the breast. Mammograms are used to:

  • Check for breast cancer in women with no signs or symptoms of the disease (called a screening mammogram) or
  • Look at a lump or other possible signs of breast cancer (called a diagnostic mammogram)

Find more information about our advanced breast imaging and testing services.

Fluoroscopy

Fluoroscopy uses a special X-ray machine. Instead of just taking snapshots, a special camera called a fluoroscope is used to capture internal organs in motion – think of it as an “X-ray movie".

These real-time pictures of different parts of the body are displayed on a monitor, allowing the doctor to assess how well organs are working. This X-ray test is usually done when you are lying down.

Fluoroscopy may be used to:

  • Detect problems or disease – for example, in the lungs, bones, blood vessels, the heart’s arteries, the gastrointestinal tract and other areas
  • Guide treatments – for example, it can be used when:
    • Placing stents to open blocked blood vessels
    • Inserting tubes or other devices in the body
    • Doing joint replacements
    • Taking biopsies (samples of tissue, including breast biopsies)
    • Giving injections of medicines into joints or the spine (facet injection, nerve root block)

Bone X-ray or bone density scan

This type of X-ray allows doctors to look for:

  • Broken bones, injuries or tumors
  • Conditions affecting the bone
  • Inflammation caused by infection (osteomyelitis)

  • A bone density test, sometimes called a DEXA scan, is used to measure bone loss. It’s most commonly used to check for osteoporosis – a disease that causes bones to become weak and brittle and more likely to break.

    The DEXA test identifies low bone density in patients at an early stage, allowing doctors to prescribe appropriate treatment before the condition worsens. Pictures of the lower spine and hips are most often used to check for osteoporosis. Results are read by doctors who sub-specialize in musculoskeletal radiology.

    Upper GI tests

    This type of X-ray is commonly used to look at the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which includes the:

    • Esophagus
    • Stomach
    • Small intestine

    Three X-ray tests may be done, either alone or in combination, to produce images of this system. These could include:

    • Barium swallow, an examination of the canal in the throat that leads from the mouth to the opening of the stomach
    • Upper GI an examination of the stomach
    • Small-bowel series, an examination of the small intestine

    Upper GI exams might be recommended to assess:

    • Frequent heartburn
    • Ongoing stomach pain
    • Unexplained nausea and vomiting

    It's important to follow the instructions given to you by your doctor. You'll need to:

    • Avoid drinking or eating for a period of time before the test
    • Stop taking certain medications, in some cases
    • Let your doctor know if you’ve had a recent X-ray tests using barium dye or contrast

    During the test, you will need to drink barium sulfate, which looks like a think, white chalky milkshake. This dye helps to make your organs more visible.

    Barium Enema

    A barium enema is an X-ray examination of the colon (the large intestine) to check for colon cancer, polyps, diverticulitis or other abnormalities. There are things you must do to prepare for this test, so be sure you understand the instructions. Your doctor will give you the preparation instructions as you’ll need to clear your colon for this test.


    A radiologist (a doctor who uses medical imaging techniques to find or treat diseases or injuries) will look at the images and send a report to the doctor who ordered the exam. Your doctor will help explain what the results mean for you.


    For More Information

    For more information on your X-ray test, contact the care provider who ordered the exam.

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