An X-ray is an imaging study that takes pictures of bones and soft tissues. X-rays use safe amounts of radiation to create these pictures. The images help healthcare providers diagnose a wide range of conditions and plan treatments. Usually, providers use X-rays to evaluate broken bones, dislocated joints and other bone injuries.
An X-ray study (also called a radiograph) is a type of medical imaging (radiology) that creates pictures of your bones and soft tissues, such as organs. X-rays use safe amounts of radiation to make these pictures. The images help your provider to diagnose conditions and plan treatments.
Most often, providers use X-rays to look for fractures (broken bones). But X-ray images can help providers diagnose a wide range of injuries, disorders and diseases. X-rays are a safe and effective way for providers to evaluate your health.
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People of all ages, including babies, can get an X-ray. If there’s a chance you might be pregnant, tell your provider before getting an X-ray. Radiation from an X-ray can harm your fetus.
Your provider may order an X-ray to:
Several types of X-rays take pictures of different areas inside your body. Some X-rays use contrast material (also known as dye) to make the images clearer. Some of the most common types of X-rays include:
Some X-rays use contrast material (also called contrast agent or dye). The contrast material comes as a liquid, powder or pill. Your provider gives you the contrast material before the X-ray. Depending on the type of X-ray, you may receive the contrast material:
When your provider gives you the dye through an IV injection, you may feel flushed or warm for a little while. Some people experience a metallic taste in their mouth. These side effects go away in a few minutes.
The contrast agent changes the way soft tissues and other structures appear on an X-ray study so your provider can see them in more detail.
An X-ray sends beams of radiation through your body. Radiation beams are invisible, and you can’t feel them. The beams pass through your body and create an image on an X-ray detector nearby.
As the beams go through your body, bones, soft tissues and other structures absorb radiation in different ways. Solid or dense objects (such as bones) absorb radiation easily, so they appear bright white on the image. Soft tissues (such as organs) don’t absorb radiation as easily, so they appear in shades of gray on the X-ray.
Tell your healthcare provider about your health history, allergies and any medications you’re taking. If you’re pregnant, think you might be pregnant or are breastfeeding (chestfeeding), tell your provider before getting an X-ray.
You usually don’t need to do anything to prepare for a bone X-ray. For other types of X-ray, your provider may ask you to:
Depending on the type of X-ray, your provider will ask you to sit, stand or lie down on a table.
During the X-ray, your provider may move your body or limbs in different positions and ask you to hold still. You may need to hold your breath for a few seconds so the images aren’t blurry.
Sometimes children can’t stay still long enough to produce clear images. Your child’s provider may recommend using a restraint during an X-ray. The restraint (or immobilizer) helps your child stay still and reduces the need for retakes. The restraints don’t hurt and won’t harm your child.
If you received contrast dye before your X-ray, you should drink plenty of water to flush the contrast material from your body. Some people have side effects from contrast dye, which may include:
Although X-rays use radiation (which can cause cancer and other health problems), there is a low risk of overexposure to radiation during an X-ray. Some X-rays use higher doses of radiation than others. Generally, X-rays are safe and effective for people of all ages.
Results from a bone X-ray are usually ready right away. Your provider may share your results with you after the X-ray. Results from other types of X-rays (such as a GI test) may take longer. Talk to your provider about when you can expect results.
Allergic reactions to contrast material are rare. Symptoms can appear up to a day or two after the X-ray. If you received contrast material before your X-ray, call your provider if you have:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
X-rays help your provider evaluate your health, deliver an accurate diagnosis and plan treatments. Before an X-ray, be sure to tell your provider if you might be pregnant. X-rays are a safe, effective tool providers use to help you feel better and stay healthy.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/21/2022.
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