Do I Really Need That X-ray, Doc?
So What Exactly Is An X-ray, Anyway?
An ‘x-ray’ is a wave of energy that is able to pass through materials that regular light can’t penetrate. It creates a photographic or digital image (also known as an x-ray or radiograph). This image tells us about our bones and some of our tissues. When you look at an x-ray, the most dense area is white, and the least dense area is black. So our bones show up white and other tissues like ligaments show up darker.
But Why Do I Need One?
X-rays show your dentist areas that can’t be seen with the naked eye during an examination, such as the tip of the roots, underneath fillings, and between your teeth. When s/he looks at your x-ray, your dentist is checking for cavities, cysts, abscesses, and abnormal masses such as tumours. S/he is also checking your bone health and levels—this is hugely important because once bone is gone, it stays that way. And you need your bone to hold in your teeth!
Predictability is one of the most important aspects of dentistry. How would you feel if you came to the dentist regularly for years, then found out you had to lose a tooth– because of something that could have been prevented if you knew about it during your first visit? Lost teeth are expensive to replace and uncomfortable to have extracted! An x-ray helps your dentist help you keep your teeth, so you can avoid unnecessary treatment and costs.
You may also need an x-ray if you’re having a current problem. They are important diagnostic tools for your dentist, allowing him/her to accurately assess what is happening inside your mouth. An accurate diagnosis leads to an accurate, effective solution to your problem.
So How Often Do I Really Need Them?
Every patient is different. Typically, if you are a healthy patient coming in for regular care, x-rays are taken once a year. If you are a new patient, additional x-rays may be needed to establish a baseline for future care or as a diagnostic tool if you are experiencing a problem. Feel free to ask your dentist or one of the dental staff if they have recommended an x-ray and you are not sure why. We’re always happy to explain and help you understand why we do what we do. We understand that our patients are not always as familiar with the dental world as we are, and we love the chance to share our knowledge.
But What About the Radiation? I’m Not Ready For Superpowers Quite Yet
No superhero ever gained powers from a dental x-ray, in part because the radiation levels are just waaay too low. Dental x-rays give you some of the lowest radiation exposure possible from medical imaging, which is just one way we get radiation exposure. 4 bitewing x-rays, which are typically taken every one to two years as part of regular care, are measured at around 0.005 mSv. A chest x-ray is measured at 0.1 mSv, which is 20 times more radiation than a dental x-ray.
Some environmental sources give us radiation exposure: the earth, sun and even outer space! This radiation is referred to as ‘background’ radiation. The average annual dose is 1.8 mSv. Your exposure is even higher if you live in a city with a high altitude.
Travel a lot? You even get radiation from airplane flights. In fact, you get 7 times more radiation flying from New York to Los Angeles than you do from 4 bitewings. Live in Kelowna, but work in Alberta? You get twice as much radiation during just one flight from Kelowna to Calgary.
What Do You Mean I Need A Different Type of X-ray?
Not all x-rays show the same things. If you are unclear on why your dentist has recommended a certain type of x-ray, just ask!
Bitewing – Shows decay, bone levels, identifies bone disease (periodontitis), abnormalities in teeth (ie. pulp stones), and your bite (occlusion). If there is decay, a bitewing will show how deep the cavity is, which will help your dentist know if you need a root canal. Bitewings also let your dentist see in between your teeth and under your fillings to make absolutely sure you don’t have hidden decay.
Periapical (PA)- A very specific x-ray, a PA helps your dentist diagnose you when you are having a problem. It also shows bone height, root tips, ligaments, and if you have an abscess.
Panoramic (PAN) – Provides the general layout of your mouth. It shows impaction, cysts, tumors, jaw disorders, and bone irregularities.
So You’re Saying the Benefits Outweigh the Risk?
Absolutely! If there is something wrong and only a radiograph can show it, you run the risk of having permanent, irreversible damage to your dental health if you decide not to get x-rays. Dentists recommend them for a very good reason—they want you to be healthy! Most health issues can be lessened or even prevented if they are caught early enough. Not only that, identifying problems early can help you avoid huge treatment costs in the long run. So, for you and your wallet’s best health, smile and say cheese!