An X-ray is a quick and painless procedure commonly used to produce images of the inside of the body produced by exposure to a controlled source of x-rays and kept in digital form and shown on a computer screen.
It’s a very effective way of looking at the bones and can be used to help detect a range of conditions.
X-rays are a type of radiation that can pass through the body. They can’t be seen by the naked eye and you can’t feel them.
As they pass through the body, the energy from X-rays is absorbed at different rates by different parts of the body. A detector on the other side of the body picks up the X-rays after they’ve passed through and turns them into an image.
Dense parts of your body that X-rays find it more difficult to pass through, such as bone, show up as clear white areas on the image. Softer parts that X-rays can pass through more easily, such as your heart and lungs, show up as darker areas.
Are there any risks?
There are risks involved with x-rays, but a plain x-ray uses a small amount of radiation, equivalent to that which we all receive from the atmosphere over a period of 2 or 3 days.
Female patients who are or might be pregnant must inform the radiographer, who will cover the lower abdomen with a lead apron, as the foetus is more sensitive to radiation.
You don’t usually need to do anything special to prepare for an X-ray. You can eat and drink as normal beforehand and can continue taking your usual medications.
However, you may need to stop taking certain medications and avoid eating and drinking for a few hours if you’re having an X-ray that uses a contrast agent (see contrast X-rays below).
For all X-rays, you should let the hospital know if you’re pregnant. X-rays aren’t usually recommended for pregnant women unless it’s an emergency.
It’s a good idea to wear loose comfortable clothes, as you may be able to wear these during the X-ray. Try to avoid wearing jewellery and clothes containing metal (such as zips), as these will need to be removed.
What happens during the x-ray?
You will be taken into the x-ray room where you will stand against a frame or asked to sit or lie down on a table. Although the radiographer will go behind a screen, you will be seen and heard at all times.
You will be asked to stay still and sometimes to take a deep breath in and hold it for a few seconds.
In some cases, a substance called a contrast agent may be given before an X-ray is carried out. This can help show soft tissues more clearly on the X-ray.
Types of X-rays involving a contrast agent include:
- barium swallow – a substance called barium is swallowed to help highlight the upper digestive system
- barium enema – barium is passed into your bowel through your bottom
- angiography – iodine is injected into a blood vessel to highlight the heart and blood vessels
- intravenous urogram (IVU) – iodine is injected into a blood vessel to highlight the kidneys and bladder
These types of X-rays may need special preparation beforehand and will usually take longer to carry out. Your appointment letter will mention anything you need to do to prepare.
Who will perform the x-ray?
You will be cared for by a Radiographer and your images will be examined and reported on by a Consultant Radiologist.
The images will be examined after your visit and a written report on the findings sent to your GP or consultant.