You’ve undoubtedly seen dental X-rays while visiting the dentist throughout the years. But what are they for, and why do we need them? Dentists employ dental X-rays (radiographs) to identify abnormalities or damage that can’t be detected during a clinical oral examination.
How X-Rays Work
During your dental X-ray, a tiny amount of electromagnetic radiation is utilized to create an X-ray image of your teeth, roots, gums, jaw, and facial bones.
Dental X-rays work similarly to other kinds of X-rays by emitting a form of radiation that is absorbed by solid objects but passes through less dense tissues, such as your skin. The energy from the solid items (teeth and bones) is absorbed, and they appear darker on the X-ray image. This provides your dentist with an inside look at your oral health.
Frequency of Dental X-rays
According to the caries risk assessment, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and American Dental Association suggest that the frequency of dental X-rays be determined on a case-by-case basis. Some people are more prone to tooth decay, affecting the dental X-ray frequency that a dentist recommends. Your caries risk also changes over time.
What They Detect
Dental X-rays can detect dental problems you cannot see during a visual examination. This is important because your dentist may prescribe various treatments based on the X-ray.
Dental X-rays look for problems in your teeth, gums, and jaw. Dental X-rays may reveal the following:
- Position, size, and number of teeth
- Changes in the root canal
- Bone loss in the jaw or facial bones
- Bone fractures
- Tooth decay, including between teeth or under fillings
- Abscesses and cysts
- Impaction of teeth
- How the upper and lower teeth fit together
Dentists inspect dentition in children and young individuals for the existence (including number and size) of teeth that have not yet developed. This covers adult teeth, wisdom teeth, or molars. They also look at the distance between the jawbones to see whether the adult teeth will grow properly.
How much radiation are you getting during an x-ray?
Dental x-rays have a significantly lower radiation dose than other treatments. A routine exam, which includes four bitewings, is equivalent to 0.005 mSv of exposure–this amount is comparable to the average day-to-day amount of radiation we get from the sun or a short airplane flight that lasts 1-2 hours. If you get a panoramic dental x-ray, this will be about double the previous amount at 0.01 mSv.
Are x-rays safe for pregnant women?
Routine x-rays can wait until after delivery. However, if dental x-rays are needed for an urgent procedure, the American College of Radiology affirms that a single diagnostic x-ray doesn’t expose the developing embryo or fetus to enough radiation to cause harm. In fact, with dental x-rays, almost no other body part besides teeth is exposed to radiation.
How often do you need an x-ray?
The frequency of dental x-rays needed for a patient varies based on age, oral health condition, and risk for disease. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), dentists should only order x-rays for diagnosis or treatment purposes when necessary.
To minimize radiation exposure, your dentist should follow the ADA’s standards as closely as possible. Shielding (such as protective aprons) is used in this case. For traditional x-rays, the ADA advises that dentists utilize E or F speed film, which uses less radiation to generate a decent image (such as digital x-rays).
If you have concerns about whether an x-ray is necessary, talk to your dentist about why they think one is required. In the end, you and your dentist must balance the benefits of an x-ray against the potential for minimal radiation exposure.