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Dental X-rays / Radiographs

What are dental X-rays?

Panoramic dental X-ray for assessment of developmental status.

A panoramic radiograph allows the dentist to assess a patient’s growth and development status, check for missing or extra teeth, and evaluate the teeth and bones of the facial area for disease processes.

Dental X-rays (radiographs) are used by dental health professionals to evaluate hard tissue (teeth and bones) for signs of disease process or abnormalities.

The type of X-rays prescribed is determined by the type of information the dentist needs to evaluate a patient’s dental condition and plan any required treatment. X-ray imaging techniques that are commonly used in dentistry include bitewings; cephalometric X-rays (cephs); cone beam computed tomography (CBCT) scans; full mouth series of X-rays; occlusal X-rays; panoramic X-rays (pano films); and periapical X-rays.

Orthodontic tracings on a lateral cephalometric X-ray (radiograph).

A cephalometric radiograph is a type of X-ray image showing the bones of the skull, mandible, and cervical spine, as well as the teeth. The orthodontist measures the relative position and angles of certain bones, and of the teeth to determine the extent and type of orthodontic treatment needed by the patient. (Image courtesy Thomas J. Melcher, DDS, MS).

Radiographs are an essential diagnostic tool of dental professionals. Even with promising emerging technologies, there is little doubt X-ray technology will continue to be a primary means of identifying and recording problems for the foreseeable future.

Since dental benefits became available, there has been controversy about how often a patient should be evaluated with routine X-rays. Unfortunately, the decision is sometimes made on the basis of how often dental plans will pay for them, rather than how often the patient’s dental history (e.g. decayed, missing and filled teeth); clinical findings (chips, cracks, decay, gum disease, etc.); and ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) exposure principles suggest they should be prescribed. Dental plans typically base payment of benefits for X-rays on the annual needs of an average plan participant. However, some patients may require more frequent imaging, and some less than others, based on individual needs.

Your dentist is the best qualified individual to evaluate your dental condition and prescribe appropriate radiographs on an appropriate interval.

The process of taking dental X-rays

The following is the general process for bitewing and periapical X-rays:

  • The radiographic technician will place a lead apron around your upper body, and and a lead collar around your neck. This is done as a safety measure, to shield sensitive tissues (thyroid gland, etc.) that are not part of the tissue being examined against direct or reflected ionizing radiation from the X-ray imaging device. Although dental X-rays produce low levels of ionizing radiation, it’s good to be conservative with exposure.
  • A radiographic imaging film or digital imaging sensor will be placed in your mouth behind the tooth or teeth to be imaged, and you will be asked to bite gently on a stabilizing device that holds the imaging film or sensor in position. This can produce momentary discomfort that is typically minor.
  • The X-ray tubehead will be aligned with the imaging sensor or film near your cheek.
  • X-ray exposure is initiated when the technician presses a switch. The amount and duration of the exposure varies according to the type of radiograph that is being exposed, and the type of tissue that is being examined. Normally, the exposure is rapid, lasting only a fraction of a second.
  • The image will be processed, either by traditional film processing techniques, or with some type of digital scanner. Traditional film takes 5 to 10 minutes to process. Digital images may appear within seconds of exposure, depending on the type of digital equipment being used.
  • Your dentist will analyze your radiographs for any sign of abnormalities, and will include them as part of your diagnostic record.
  • Your dentist will make recommendations appropriate to the diagnostic findings.

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Author: Thomas J. Greany, D.D.S. / Editor: Ken Lambrecht

This page was last updated on December 17, 2018.

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