Because they’re such a standard part of orthodontic care, we want to answer some common questions people have about dental x-rays.
What Are Dental X-Rays?
When we talk about dental x-rays, we’re referring to a diagnostic test that uses a type of electromagnetic radiation to capture images of the inside of a patient’s teeth, gums, and jaw. This radiation is similar to light in many ways, but unlike light, it can pass through solid objects.
The area surrounding a patient’s mouth is positioned between a device that emits x-rays and a device that detects them. When the x-rays pass through the body, they’re absorbed in different amounts by different types of tissue and other substances in the body that each have varying radiological density.
The image is captured on a radiograph, showing different structures and substances in the body at different levels of contrast based on their radiological density. Bone has a relatively high radiological density, so it absorbs more radiation than other substances; that’s why bones appear as the brightest white elements on an x-ray.
What Are Dental X-Rays Used For?
Dental x-rays are an imaging test and diagnostic tool. They let the orthodontist see what’s going on inside a patient’s mouth and jaw. This provides lots of information about the structure of the upper and lower jaw bones, the location and position of teeth, and other aspects of oral health.
The information gleaned from dental x-rays helps the orthodontist understand the underlying cause of bite problems, and how best to go about treating them. It can also provide warnings about future problems, particularly in kids whose permanent teeth haven’t come in yet.
Periodic dental x-rays are also used to monitor progress in dental development and of orthodontic treatments.
Is Any Special Preparation Needed for Dental X-Rays?
Nope. Just brush your teeth as you [hopefully] would before any orthodontist or dentist appointment.
Are There Different Types of Dental X-Rays?
Yes. Orthodontists use a variety of intraoral and extraoral x-rays to get images of the teeth, gums, and jaw. Just a few examples of the more common types include:
- Bitewing x-rays that involve biting down on a material to capture images of how the crowns of the teeth match up
- Occlusal x-rays of a closed jaw to see how the upper and lower teeth align and to look for certain anatomical anomalies
- Panoramic x-rays in which the machine rotates around the patient’s head, allowing inspection of the wisdom teeth, showing structural jaw problems, or helping plan for implantation of certain orthodontic devices
Are Dental X-Rays Safe?
This is undoubtedly the biggest concern people have about dental x-rays. And the answer is an unequivocal “Yes.” Dental x-rays are completely safe for children and adults. Though we will add the caveat here that women who are pregnant or who think they may be pregnant are advised to avoid all x-rays.
It’s true that dental x-rays involve exposure to radiation, but the exposure is minimal. The amount of radiation is small, plus a lead vest is used to prevent exposure outside the area being imaged.
Everyone is exposed to radiation everyday, from radon in the air, the earth, the sun, natural materials, other people, man-made objects, and other sources. On average, Americans are exposed to 620 mrem of radiation per year, about half from natural sources and half from man-made sources, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This is considered well within the limits of safe, and NRC standards even allow for exposure to an additional 5,000 mrem per year for people who work around radioactive materials. A single dental x-ray exposes the patient to 1.5 mrem of radiation.
This is a painless test, too. You won’t feel a thing, and there are no side effects or recovery period.