One of the most common, yet least understood procedures regularly practiced by dentists is the use of Dental X-rays. But what exactly are X-rays, and more importantly, do they present a health risk?
Developed late in the 19th Century by German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen, an X-ray is a type of electromagnetic radiation (visible light) but with the unique ability to penetrate or pass through the human body to produce shadow-like images either on traditional film, or more likely today, in a digital format. An invaluable medical / dental tool, by generating an image of the interior structure of bones and organs an X-ray is a proven diagnostic method for determining the condition of a patient in a non-intrusive way.
When you go to a dentist for the first time it is not uncommon for a set of X-rays to be taken to allow your dentist to detect any signs of damage or oral disease not visible during a regular dental exam. This procedure will allow your dental professional to create a baseline understanding of your personal oral health condition, which in turn allows them to map out a more accurate plan to deal with any ongoing or potential problem areas. The frequency of X-ray usage depends on the patient's present oral health, their age and if there are any immediate signs and symptoms of oral disease.
Children for example may require the taking of X-rays more frequently than adults as their teeth and jaws are still developing and their teeth are more likely to be affected by tooth decay than those of an adult. Your dentist will review your history (if one is available), examine your mouth and then decide whether or not you need X-rays.
A question frequently asked dentists is: Are Dental X-rays safe? The simple, Cole's Notes answer of course is: Yes they are! But as with all things in life, and with all people, there are varying degrees of truth to that answer. An X-ray by its very nature involves the use of radiation which is harmful to all living things, including human beings. But, radiation is a universal constant that can be found in a variety of forms, many of them natural, on a daily basis. The sunlight beaming down (or even shining through a cloud cover) is a form of radiation and potentially harmful.
Natural forms of radiation can also come from the earth as many types of minerals and soils release some form of this invisible energy. Cosmic radiation which beams in from Outer Space passes effortlessly through the planet (and each of us) every day without us even being aware that it's happening.
Researchers have proven time and again that the amount of radiation involved in a typical Dental X-ray is approximately the same as you would encounter by just living and walking around each day. In contrast, if you're a frequent traveler you would be exposed to much higher levels of radiation than someone having a dental X-ray as air travel carries humans higher into the stratosphere, and above much of the blanket of air that protects us mere terrestrial mortals from the harmful effects of space-based cosmic radiation.
So while the amount of radiation in a dental X-ray is relatively low and the procedure is very safe, it's a worthy precaution for pregnant women to avoid having a Dental X-ray if at all possible. That being said, as pregnant women are at increased risk for gum disease, it's also important not to ignore a potentially serious dental problem due to fears about radiation exposure from X-rays. A pregnant woman requiring a Dental X-ray will always be shielded with a lead apron and a lead thyroid collar to protect her vulnerable areas.
Dental professionals recommend that children and all women of childbearing age should wear protective lead coverings when getting Dental X-rays. But there is considered to be no added risk associated with Dental X-rays for breastfeeding women or women who are trying to become pregnant.
So to summarize: trust the technology. Conventional dental x-ray machines use high-speed film, which reduces your exposure to radiation. Increasingly dentists are using digital x-rays, which use about 80 percent less radiation than conventional ones. In general, dental x-rays emit lower levels of radiation than other medical x-rays. Mammograms, for example, send out five times more radiation than dental x-rays, and no one would suggest avoiding a mammogram out of a fear of radiation exposure.