A hand X-ray produces a black-and-white image of the anatomy of your hand. Your healthcare provider may use hand X-rays to diagnose medical conditions in your hand or hands. Hand X-rays are quick, easy and painless procedures. You’ll place your hand on an X-ray table while a radiologic technologist takes pictures of it.
A hand X-ray (radiograph) is a test that creates a picture of the inside of your hand. The picture shows the inner structure (anatomy) of your hand in black-and-white. Calcium in your bones absorbs more radiation, so your bones appear white on the X-ray. Soft tissues, such as muscle, fat and organs, absorb less radiation, so they appear different shades of gray. Healthcare providers use hand X-rays to diagnose and treat health conditions in your hand.
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X-rays use a kind of radiation called electromagnetic waves. These waves create an image of the inside of your body. X-rays are the oldest type of medical imaging used by healthcare providers today. X-rays were discovered in 1895 and were first used to take pictures of human tissue in 1896. X-rays are also the most commonly used type of imaging.
Your healthcare provider will use a hand X-ray to diagnose possible medical conditions in your hand or hands. These conditions may include:
Your child’s pediatrician may request an X-ray of your child’s hand to determine their “bone age.” Bone age helps your child’s pediatrician decide if your child has a health problem preventing them from growing properly. Bone age can also help your child’s pediatrician figure out how much growing your child still has left to do.
A radiologic technologist, or X-ray technician, will perform your hand X-ray. Radiologic technologists have special training in patient care, radiation exposure and protection, and radiographic positioning and procedures.
X-rays are a type of radiation. Small beams of radiation pass through your body and produce an image on special photographic film or a detector.
Your body parts absorb different degrees of radiation. Your bones are dense and filled with calcium, so they appear white on X-rays. Muscle, fat and organs are less dense and let more radiation through, so they appear varying degrees of gray. Air appears black.
Hand X-rays don’t need much preparation. Before the test, you’ll be asked to remove all jewelry from your hand and wrist. Jewelry may interfere with the X-ray images.
It’s important to tell your radiologic technologist if you’re pregnant or if there’s any possibility you might be pregnant. The amount of radiation used for a hand X-ray is minimal and considered safe during pregnancy. But your healthcare provider will decide if an X-ray is necessary. Your technologist will use precautions to reduce radiation exposure to the fetus.
Before your X-ray, your radiologic technologist will explain the procedure to you and answer any questions you have.
A radiologic technologist will perform your hand X-ray in your healthcare provider’s office or a hospital radiology department. Once in the X-ray room, you may be given a lead apron to protect your reproductive organs from radiation exposure. The X-ray room may be cold, but the whole test usually only takes five to 10 minutes. The procedure itself is painless — you won’t feel the radiation.
The technologist will have you place your hand on the X-ray table. Sponges, sandbags, pillows or other equipment may be positioned around your arm to keep it from moving during the X-ray. It’s important to keep very still during the test because movement can blur the X-ray images. You may be asked to hold your breath for a few seconds while the images are being taken.
Your technologist will place 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 operate the X-ray machine. You may be asked to turn your hand and hold various positions so images can be taken from multiple angles. You also may be asked to hold sandbags or other devices to show what the area being studied looks like when it bears weight. Two or three images from each angle will be taken. Let your technologist know if you’re in any pain. They’ll find ways to assist you through the test.
After your hand X-ray, your radiologic technologist may ask you to wait a few minutes while they take a quick glance at the images. They want to make sure none of the images are blurry before letting you go. If any of the images are blurry, they’ll retake them.
After that, a doctor called a radiologist will review the images. Radiologists are trained to analyze X-ray images and interpret the results. Once the radiologist has reviewed the results, they’ll send them to your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will discuss the findings with you and recommend appropriate treatment.
Depending on the results, you may be asked to return for a follow-up exam. Your healthcare provider may want additional X-ray images for different views of your hand. You may also be asked to return to track your condition and see if any changes have occurred over time.
X-rays provide a fast and easy way for your healthcare provider to diagnose medical conditions in your hand or hands. The amount of radiation exposure in a hand X-ray is minimal. The radiation passes right through you. X-rays usually don’t cause any side effects.
People who are pregnant have a slightly higher risk of problems with radiation exposure. They should always tell their radiologic technologist if they’re pregnant or think they could be pregnant. You may wear a lead apron to protect certain parts of your body from radiation exposure. Children have a slightly higher risk as well. Lower amounts of radiation may be used on children.
Excessive exposure to radiation carries a slight risk of cancer. However, all healthcare providers agree the benefit of an accurate diagnosis outweighs the risk of radiation exposure. If you’re concerned about the amount of radiation you’ll be exposed to, ask your healthcare provider.
If your hand X-ray was done due to an emergency, the results may be available almost immediately. Otherwise, your radiologist will usually have the results ready in one to two days. Your radiologist will send the results to your healthcare provider, who’ll discuss them with you.
Sometimes, a fractured hand bone doesn’t show up on a hand X-ray. These missed fractures are usually tiny and occur in areas where your bones overlap. If your original X-rays appear normal but you still have pain and tenderness, your healthcare provider may recommend more imaging tests. These imaging tests include computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you’ve never had an X-ray before, the process may seem a bit intimidating. But in reality, a hand X-ray is a quick and painless procedure. Your healthcare provider will explain what’s going to happen and answer any questions you may have. While exposure to radiation holds a slight risk, the amount you receive during a hand X-ray is minimal. And getting the correct diagnosis is important for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/18/2022.
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