Shoulder X-Ray

Overview

What is a shoulder X-ray?

A shoulder X-ray is an imaging test that takes pictures of the inside of your shoulder. Sometimes providers also refer to X-rays as radiographs.

How do X-rays work?

An X-ray machine sends electromagnetic (radiation) waves through your body. These waves create an image on X-ray film or a digital X-ray sensor. Your provider usually takes several pictures of your shoulder from different angles and positions.

Bones appear white on an X-ray because radiation cannot pass through them. Other tissues, like muscles or tendons, allow some radiation through so they may appear gray or black.

If your provider needs more detailed pictures of your shoulder, you may undergo additional imaging tests, including:

What is the anatomy of your shoulder?

Your shoulder joint can move in more directions than any other joint in your body. A normal shoulder X-ray will show the bones that make up this ball-and-socket joint:

  • Humerus (upper arm bone).
  • Scapula (shoulder blade), which connects to the humerus.
  • Acromion (a piece of bone that projects off the scapula).
  • Clavicle (collarbone), which connects to the acromion.
  • Coracoid process (a hook-shaped piece of bone that projects off the scapula).

Your provider will look at the size, position and shape of each of these bones. Fractures, calcifications and some tumors are also visible on an X-ray.

Cartilage, tendons, nerves and muscles are important parts of your shoulder but are not visible on an X-ray. However, the position and shape of your bones give your provider information about your shoulder health.

When would I need a shoulder X-ray?

If you have pain in your shoulder or trouble moving it, your doctor may order a shoulder X-ray. An X-ray is the most common imaging test healthcare providers order because it’s painless, noninvasive and widely available.

You may need a shoulder X-ray if your provider wants to check for a number of shoulder conditions, including:

Who performs a shoulder X-ray?

A radiologic technologist (X-ray technician or X-ray tech) or radiologist assistant (RA) performs a shoulder X-ray. These technicians have completed training in how to use X-ray equipment.

After the tech or RA takes your X-rays, a radiologist (a doctor who has completed training in medical imaging) looks at the images. The radiologist may recommend more tests or provide a diagnosis. Usually, your radiologist gives this information to the provider who ordered your X-ray. That person will review the results with you.

Test Details

How do I prepare for a shoulder X-ray?

Shoulder X-rays don’t require any specific preparation. There are no restrictions on eating or drinking. However, you will need to remove jewelry, body jewelry, glasses, hairpins and other metal objects that might interfere with the pictures.

If you’re pregnant or think you might be pregnant, tell your provider before getting an X-ray.

What should I expect during a shoulder X-ray?

Getting shoulder X-rays is painless and takes only a few minutes. The process usually includes the following steps:

  1. A staff member guides you to a private changing room. You remove your clothing from the waist up and change into a hospital gown.
  2. You go into the X-ray room with the technologist.
  3. You stand or sit while your X-ray tech or RA positions your shoulder next to the X-ray machine.
  4. Your X-ray tech or RA asks you to hold still while the machine takes the pictures. You may have to hold your breath for short periods or move your shoulder into different positions.

What should I expect after a shoulder X-ray?

After taking your X-rays, your provider may view the pictures to be sure they are clear. If any of the images are blurry, they may have to retake some of them.

Once your provider completes your X-rays, you go back to your private changing room. You get dressed and put your jewelry and glasses back on. You can resume normal activities unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

What are the risks of a shoulder X-ray?

X-rays expose you to a small amount of radiation. Large amounts of radiation over time can cause tissue damage or cancer. However, today’s X-rays contain very low doses of radiation. The benefit of X-rays in diagnosing medical conditions usually outweighs the risk.

You and your provider should agree that the X-ray is necessary for your health. Ask your provider if you aren’t sure why you need an X-ray.

Children and developing fetuses are more sensitive to X-ray radiation. If your child needs an X-ray, ask your provider about lower-dose X-ray options or other types of radiology studies. If you’re pregnant, discuss the benefits and risks of an X-ray with your provider before having the test.

Results and Follow-Up

When will I know the results of my shoulder X-ray?

If your provider ordered your X-ray as urgent, you may get results within a few minutes. If your test was not urgent, you usually get the results within a few days. The provider who ordered your X-ray will contact you to discuss the results.

When should I call my doctor?

Call your provider if:

  • It’s been a week or more since your X-ray and you haven’t received your results.
  • You notice new symptoms, such as increased pain in your shoulder.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

A shoulder X-ray is a safe and effective way to diagnose certain conditions in the shoulder. If your provider orders this test, ask questions to understand why you need it. This test is quick and noninvasive and can provide important information about your health.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/11/2022.

References

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). X-Rays, CT scans and MRIs. (https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/treatment/x-rays-ct-scans-and-mris/) Accessed 3/11/2022.
  • Arthritis Foundation. Shoulder Anatomy. (https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/about-arthritis/where-it-hurts/shoulder-anatomy) Accessed 3/11/2022.
  • Merck Manual (Consumer Version). Tests for Musculoskeletal Disorders. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/bone,-joint,-and-muscle-disorders/diagnosis-of-musculoskeletal-disorders/tests-for-musculoskeletal-disorders) Accessed 3/11/2022.
  • Radiological Society of North America (RNSA) and American College of Radiology (ACR). Professions in Diagnostic Radiology. (https://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info/professions-diagnostic-radiology) Accessed 3/11/2022.
  • U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). We Want You to Know About X-rays: Get the Picture on Protection. (https://www.fda.gov/radiation-emitting-products/resources-you-radiation-emitting-products/we-want-you-know-about-x-rays-get-picture-protection) Accessed 3/11/2022.

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