What is a wrist X-ray?
A wrist X-ray (radiograph) is a test that produces an image of the inside of your wrist. The image displays the inner structure (anatomy) of your wrist in black and white. A wrist X-ray shows your two forearm bones (radius and ulna) and eight wrist bones (carpal bones). Your carpal bones are aligned in two rows of four bones each at the base of your hand. Your healthcare provider uses a wrist X-ray to diagnose and treat health and medical conditions in your wrist.
What are X-rays?
X-rays use a type of radiation called electromagnetic waves to create an image of the inside of your body. Healthcare providers use X-rays more often than any other kind of imaging. X-rays send a beam of radiation through your body. Calcium in your bones absorbs more radiation, so your bones appear white. Soft tissues absorb less radiation, so they appear in various shades of gray.
Why would I need a wrist X-ray?
Your healthcare provider uses a wrist X-ray to find the cause of any pain, swelling or tenderness in your wrist. They can use a wrist X-ray to diagnose possible health conditions involving your wrists. These conditions include:
- Broken bones (fractures) in your wrist.
- Dislocated joints.
- Degenerative conditions such as arthritis in your wrists.
- Carpel tunnel syndrome.
- Bone cysts.
- Bone infection (osteomyelitis).
- Bone cancer.
Your healthcare provider may use a wrist X-ray after a broken bone has been set. These X-rays can be used to make sure your bone was set properly and to ensure your bone or joint has healed correctly.
If your child’s pediatrician is concerned about your child’s growth, they might request a wrist X-ray. An X-ray is one test that can help determine your child’s “bone age.” Your child’s bone age can tell your child’s pediatrician if they have a health condition affecting their growth.
Who performs a wrist X-ray?
A radiologic technologist (X-ray technician) will perform your wrist X-ray. Radiologic technologists are trained in patient care, radiation exposure, radiation protection, radiographic positioning and radiographic procedures.
How does a wrist X-ray work?
X-rays send beams of radiation through your body to create a picture. The picture is displayed on special photographic film or a digital platform (like a computer screen).
Your body parts vary in thickness, so they absorb different amounts of radiation. Your bones absorb more radiation, so they look white on X-rays. Soft tissues such as your muscle, fat and organs are less dense, so they appear different shades of gray. Air appears black.
How do I get ready for a wrist X-ray?
Wrist X-rays don’t need a lot of preparation. You’ll want to make sure you remove all jewelry from your hand and wrist before the X-ray. Jewelry can show up on the X-rays and can interfere with getting a usable image.
If you’re pregnant, tell your radiologic technologist. Wrist X-rays use a very small amount of radiation and are considered safe during pregnancy. But your healthcare provider will decide if you need an X-ray. If it’s urgent, your technologist will use precautions to reduce the risk of radiation exposure to your growing baby (fetus).
If you have any questions about the X-ray procedure, your technologist will be able to answer them for you.
What can I expect during a wrist X-ray?
A radiologic technologist will perform your wrist X-ray in your hospital’s radiology department. The X-ray room is set at a cold temperature to protect the X-ray equipment, but the test should be quick — no more than 15 minutes. The X-ray itself is painless — you won’t feel the radiation.
The technologist will have you place your arm on the X-ray table. They may put sponges or other positioning equipment around your wrist to keep it in place. You’ll be asked to keep very still during the test because any movement can affect the X-ray images. You may also be asked to hold your breath while the X-rays are being taken. Your technologist will put an X-ray film holder or digital recording plate under the X-ray table. Then, they’ll go into a small room or behind a wall to activate the X-ray machine.
A normal wrist X-ray includes at least two images. Your technologist will return to reposition your wrist as needed. The images include one picture taken from the top with your palm facing down (posteroanterior view) and one picture taken from the side (lateral view). A picture of your wrist at an angle (oblique view) may also be taken. If you’re in any pain, let your technologist know so they can help assist you through the test.
What can I expect after a wrist X-ray?
After your wrist X-ray, your radiologic technologist will want to make sure all of the images are clear. You’ll be asked to wait while they check the images. If any of the images came out unclear, they’ll have to retake them.
Then, a doctor called a radiologist will study the images. Radiologists have special training in analyzing X-ray images and understanding the results. Once the radiologist has studied the results, they’ll send them to your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will contact you to go over the findings and discuss treatment.
Depending on the results, your healthcare provider may want you to return for a follow-up exam. They may need further X-rays of your wrist. They may also need you to return to monitor your condition over time.
What are the risks of a wrist X-ray?
X-rays are a fast and simple way for your healthcare provider to diagnose possible medical conditions in your wrist or wrists. Wrist X-rays give off only a small amount of radiation that goes directly through your body. X-rays rarely cause side effects.
If you’re pregnant, you have a slightly higher risk of problems with radiation exposure. Make sure to tell your radiologic technologist if you’re pregnant or think you could be pregnant. Children also have a slightly higher risk. Your child’s technologist may be able to use lower amounts of radiation.
Too much exposure to radiation carries a small risk of cancer. If you’re concerned about radiation exposure, talk to your technologist.
Results and Follow-Up
When will I find out the results of my wrist X-ray?
The results of your wrist X-ray may be available almost immediately if it was due to an emergency. Otherwise, your radiologist will commonly get the results to your healthcare provider within one to two days. Your healthcare provider will then discuss the results with you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can an X-ray show a sprained wrist?
X-rays don’t clearly show the ligaments in your wrist. However, your healthcare provider may order a wrist X-ray to rule out a fracture. The X-ray will show if your wrist bones don’t line up correctly. If your carpal bones are overlapping or there are gaps between them, it could indicate you have a ligament injury such as a sprain. Further imaging tests such as computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans may be necessary.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
X-rays are the most common type of medical imaging used today. If you have wrist pain, swelling or tenderness, your healthcare provider may order an X-ray to try to determine what’s going on. A wrist X-ray is a fast, easy and painless procedure. Your radiologic technologist will explain the process and answer your questions. While radiation exposure holds a small risk, the amount you receive during a wrist X-ray is minor. Once you have the correct diagnosis, your healthcare provider will get you set with the proper treatment.
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