Spinal Diagnostics: X-Rays

X-rays are a form of energy - radiation. X-rays exist in nature, emanating from outer space, rocks and even the soil. You can't see or feel X-rays. Because they're of higher energy than visible light, X-rays can penetrate objects - including your body.

X-rays are one of the oldest forms of medical imaging. An X-ray is a form of electromagnetic radiation - a type of energy that exists in nature and beams at us from space, rocks and the soil. The radiation can't be seen or felt.

Because X-rays are higher energy than the light we see, they can go through objects. An X-ray is actually an electromagnetic beam that is aimed through your body to a piece of film behind it. The resulting image allows doctors to make pictures of the inside of your body.

The different parts of our body absorb the X-rays differently. The calcium in your bone blocks the X-ray completely. This creates a white shadow on the film. Because soft tissues such as organs, muscles, fat or nerves block only part or none of the beam, they appear in shades of gray. While X-rays are particularly useful in examining bony structures such as the spine, they are not helpful in showing nerve damage or herniated discs between the bones of the spine (the vertebrae).

X-rays, however, can be used to:

  • See whether a bone is chipped, dislocated or broken
  • Evaluate joint or spine injuries
  • Detect bone infections
  • Diagnose and monitor conditions, such as arthritis or osteoporosis
  • Identify scoliosis (an abnormal curvature of the spine) and other spinal defects

The film used to capture the X-ray is usually developed quickly. A radiologist, a doctor who is specially trained to read X-rays, will examine the film and send a report to your doctor or surgeon.

X-rays are generally safe and effective for children as well as adults. The radiation is well controlled and kept at the low levels. In some cases, parts of your body may be covered with a lead apron to minimize your exposure to unnecessary X-rays.

If you are pregnant, or think you might be, please let your doctor and the radiology technician know before you have an X-ray. Sometimes the benefits will outweigh the possible risks, but your doctor may decide to use a different type of testing or postpone the X-ray to avoid any possibility of complications.

While X-ray technology hasn't changed much since it was developed by a German physicist about 100 years ago, it is the base for a number of other imaging techniques including:

  • Computed tomography (CT) scanning, which uses X-ray images and a computer to create cross-section pictures of your body
  • Fluoroscopy, which creates real-time, moving images of your body