An X-ray is a test that uses radiation to produce images of the bones and organs of the body. Spine X-rays provide detailed images of the bones of the spine, and can be taken separately for the 3 main parts of the spine – cervical (neck), thoracic (mid back), and lumbar (lower back).
During an X-ray, a focused beam of radiation is passed through your body, and a black-and-white image is recorded on special film or a computer.
X-rays work because the body's tissues vary in density (thickness). Each tissue allows a different amount of radiation to pass through and expose the X-ray-sensitive film. Bones, for example, are very dense, and most of the radiation is prevented from passing through to the film. As a result, bones appear white on an X-ray. Tissues that are less dense – such as the lungs, which are filled with air – allow more of the X-rays to pass through to the film and appear on the image in shades of gray.
A spine X-ray may be ordered to evaluate a back or neck injury, or to help with the diagnosis and treatment of back or neck pain. Spine X-rays can help detect:
A radiology technologist, a skilled medical professional who is trained in X-ray procedures, will perform the test. A radiologist, a doctor who specializes in evaluating X-rays and other radiology procedures, will interpret the X-rays and report the test results to your doctor.
There is no special preparation for a spine X-ray. It is important to tell the technologist if you are or may be pregnant. X-rays generally are not used on pregnant women because of the possible risk of radiation exposure to the developing baby. Also, please notify the technologist if you have an insulin pump.
Before the test begins, you will be asked to remove your clothing and put on a hospital gown. You also will be asked to remove all jewelry and any other objects containing metal (such as eyeglasses and hair pins). This is done because metal can block the image and interfere with the test results.
The technologist will position your body against the X-ray film in a way that produces the clearest image. Most X-rays of the upper or lower spine are taken while you are lying on the X-ray table, although sometimes they are taken while you are standing. The technologist may ask you to change positions or move your arms. You may be asked to open your mouth for an X-ray of your neck. This position moves your teeth out of the way and enables the technologist to get a clearer image of the upper bones of your neck.
The technologist will ask you to be very still and hold your breath while the X-rays are passed through your body. (This only takes a few seconds.) It is necessary to hold your breath because movement that occurs when you breathe in and out can blur the X-ray image.
After the X-rays are taken, the technologist will process the images. You may be asked to wait a few minutes while the technologist makes sure the X-rays are acceptable; for example, to be sure they are not blurred. If necessary, you may be asked to repeat the test to obtain a clearer image.
The report of your spine X-ray will be sent to your doctor, who will discuss the results with you. In non-emergency cases, results usually are available within a day or 2.
A spine X-ray is painless. You will not feel the radiation as it passes through your body. The X-ray room may be cool, because air conditioning is used to keep the equipment at a constant temperature.
In general, spine X-rays are very safe and unlikely to produce side effects.
The amount of radiation used is very small, so the risks are minimal. Young children and a developing fetus carried by a pregnant woman are more sensitive to X-rays and are at higher risk for tissue damage.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/12/2014.