What is an upper extremity X-ray?

The upper extremity includes the fingers, hand, wrist, elbow, forearm, upper arm and shoulder. An upper extremity X-ray is a test that uses radiation to produce detailed images of the bones of the upper extremity. During an X-ray, a black-and-white image is recorded on special film or on a computer. The image looks like a negative from a black and white photograph.

X-rays work because the body's tissues vary in density (thickness). Each type of 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.

Why is an upper extremity X-ray ordered?

An upper extremity X-ray may be ordered to evaluate for various injuries and conditions, including:

  • Fractures (breaks)
  • Dislocations (joints that are pulled or pushed out of their normal position)
  • Arthritis
  • Unexplained swelling or pain
  • Bone deformities
  • Tumors (abnormal masses of cells)
  • Infections

In addition, an upper extremity X-ray may be used after treatment to ensure that a fracture has been properly aligned and stabilized for healing.

Who performs the test?

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.

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