What are the risks and benefits of X-rays?

Like all tests and types of imaging, an X-ray should only be performed if it is likely to help in the diagnosis or management of your medical condition, and when the benefits outweigh the risks.

Benefits of X-rays

X-rays are an important tool that doctors can use to investigate the cause of your symptoms. They can help confirm the presence or absence of a disease or injury. However, the diagnosis of a condition usually requires more than the result of a single examination or test. An X-ray should always be used to supplement — not replace — your doctor’s history-taking and examination.

The benefits and advantages of X-rays compared to other types of imaging include that they:

  • are fast — the results of X-rays are often available the same day, in simple cases even within the hour
  • are painless and non-invasive
  • don’t require any special preparation (except when contrast media is used)
  • require no recovery time — you can go straight back to work or school after an X-ray is finished.

Potential risks of X-rays

If you are pregnant

If there is any chance you may be pregnant, tell the radiographer who is doing the X-ray. While the majority of medical X-rays do not pose a serious risk to a developing baby, they are not usually recommended for pregnant women, except in an emergency.

X-rays of the mother’s head, limbs and chest do not usually expose the baby directly to X-rays, so if an X-ray is considered essential the radiographer can take special measures to protect the baby. However, as a precaution, X-rays of the abdomen (which will expose the uterus [womb] to radiation) are usually avoided in pregnancy. In some cases it may be possible to do another scan that does not involve radiation, such as an ultrasound.

Radiation risk

Ionising radiation can cause cell damage. Being exposed to significant amounts of radiation from X-rays and CT scans may increase your risk of developing cancer a decade or more into the future. However, this risk is low and needs to be weighed up against the benefits.

We are all exposed to background radiation in our daily lives from the food and water we ingest, the air we breathe, the soil and other environmental sources.

Different scans involve different amounts of radiation. With a very low dose X-ray, such as a single chest X-ray, the dose of radiation is roughly the same as you would receive from the general environment over about a week, or from taking a long-distance, international plane flight. Other procedures — such as CT scans or X-rays of the spine — provide a larger dose of radiation and therefore have a greater, but still small, risk.

The risk of harmful effects from having X-rays and related scans usually only become significant after a person has had a substantial number of high radiation-dose scans. Children may be more sensitive to the effects of radiation and therefore be at greater risk.

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