Several decades ago, using an x-ray was the only way to see the structures inside the body. Thanks to advances in science and technology, there are now several techniques for medical imaging but x-rays are still being used as a diagnostic tool for some medical conditions. While x-rays have proven to be useful in the medical field, there are concerns that x-rays could have harmful effects on the body, specifically exposure to x-ray radiation.
An x-ray is a form of radiant energy that produces ionization radiation. X-ray beams can go through the body which makes it possible to get images of the body’s internal structures. The images can be printed on special film or viewed via a computer. X-rays are useful when doctors need to make a diagnosis and can also serve as a guide in certain procedures such as insertion of tubes or devices inside the body.
All individuals are actually exposed to some sort of radiation every day. Natural background radiation comes from different things including the ground, air, food, and even from outer space in the form of cosmic radiation. Apart from this natural radiation we come into contact with every day, each x-ray we receive as well as nuclear medicine tests adds an additional dose to one’s exposure to radiation. The dose level of radiation varies depending on the medical examination done. X-ray exposure of the teeth, chest, and limbs usually have small radiation doses while exams involving more extensive use of x-rays like CT scans and fluoroscopy have higher radiation doses.
Risks of Radiation From X-ray
X-rays are believed to promote formation of free radicals in the body causing cell injury or cell death. Cells can either repair themselves with no damage done or there is also the possibility of cells improperly repairing themselves leading to changes in the cell’s structure and function. Reproductive organs, blood-forming organs, and digestive organs are considered to be the most sensitive to radiation while the muscle tissues, connective tissues, and the nervous system are through to be least sensitive. The effects of radiation on the body depends on several factors including radiation dose, radiation energy, part of the body exposed, and cell sensitivity.
Radiation doses involved in X-ray tests and isotope scans (in nuclear medicine) are too low to cause immediate hazardous effects. In fact, the radiation dose in these medical examinations is thousands of times extremely low to cause radiation sickness. X-ray radiation from medical examinations though slightly increases one’s risk for cancer which can occur years or decades after x-ray exposure. For example, an x-ray of the chest area is equivalent to a few days of exposure to natural background radiation and is likely to cause cancer in 1 out of every 1,000,000 individuals, hence, considered to be a negligible risk.
Is Having Too Many X-rays Harmful?
Common medical procedures that involve the use of x-rays usually have negligible to low risk. To be able to make an estimate of the likely effect of these examinations, you simply add the risks for each test together. It doesn’t make much of a difference if you have 10 chest x-rays this year or if you have two chest x-rays per year over the five years as the amount of x-ray radiation is what matters and not the frequency. Make sure that you inform your doctor about x-rays or isotope scans you have already had done in the past so that unnecessary x-ray exposure from medical exams can be avoided. The risk of x-ray radiation exposure is lower in older people but keep in mind that the risk is greater in children. Unborn babies are also more sensitive to radiation which is why pregnant women are advised to wear a lead gown during x-ray examinations to minimize exposure of the fetus.
X-rays can be valuable and have generally low health risks. Keeping track of medical examinations using x-rays that you have already undergone can be useful information for your doctor when deciding if more examinations should be avoided or not. In most cases, there is a higher risk from not having an x-ray examination or isotope scan compared to the risk of radiation itself.