Patient Education

The Basics of X-Rays

We often don’t think about how critical the technology of the X-ray is to modern medicine.  Just a hundred years ago however, diagnoses were difficult or even impossible, making treatment just as complicated. However, now, X-rays are a vital part of many health care analyses. To better understand why this technology is so helpful to professionals, let’s look at the basics.


The X-ray was discovered in 1895 by a professor working with cathode-ray in his lab. He saw that the ray could pass through most substances (including human tissue) and cast shadows, making solid objects (like bone or metal) underneath much more visible. Within 6 months of the discovery, radiography was being used on the battlefield to locate bullets in soldiers. It wasn’t until 1912 however, when a higher voltage tube became available, that the X-ray machines became more popular in the medical field. The updated tubes made it easier to capture many images without breaking down easily (a problem they were running into often.) As the years advanced, so did the technology, allowing for more and more precise imaging and accurate diagnoses.


Although X-rays are used by industries, like security or transport, their main use is in medicine. There are a variety of ways X-rays can be used to take a look into the body. With enough energy, the rays pass through all tissue and are only blocked by bones, giving you a clear picture of the hard matter. In dentistry, x-rays are used to visualize the entire mouth as well as:

  1. Monitor the development of or detect cavities
  2. Detect if there are missing or extra teeth
  3. As preparation for orthodontic treatment
  4. Detect problems that cannot be seen with a visual exam

There are four types of x-rays: Periapical, panoramic, bitewing, and occlusal. Your dentist will choose which x-rays to take based on many factors, including your dental history and time lapsed since your last exam. We usually recommend that bitewing x-rays are taken every 6 months and panoramic x-rays are taken every 3 to 5 years.


As with any technology, the future looks bright. In development is a system of making x-rays in true color and much more detailed. This allows for a limit to only what is important to the image, eliminating any information that isn’t useful. With such an advancement also comes a requirement for less radiation emanation to the body itself, making it safer to take repeat images.

Take into consideration and appreciate the procedure and immense technological advancement that X-rays were and still are next time you see a radiograph!

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