X-rays are a form of radiation, like light or radio waves, that are focused into a beam, much like a flashlight beam. X-rays can pass through most objects, including the human body. X-rays make a picture by striking a detector that either exposes a film or sends the picture to a computer. Dense tissues in the body, such as bones, block (absorb) many of the X-rays and look white on an X-ray picture. Less dense tissues, such as muscles and organs, block fewer of the X-rays (more of the X-rays pass through) and look like shades of gray on an X-ray. X-rays that pass only through air, such as through the lungs, look black on the picture.
Spinal X-rays are pictures of the spine. They may be taken to find injuries or diseases that affect the discs or joints in your spine. These problems may include spinal fractures, infections, dislocations, tumors, bone spurs, or disc disease.
Spinal X-rays are also done to check the curve of your spine (scoliosis) or for spinal defects.
The spine is divided into four parts. So there are four common types of spinal X-rays:
The most common spinal X-rays are of the cervical vertebrae (C-spine films) and lumbosacral vertebrae (LS-spine films).
Why It Is Done
A spinal X-ray is done to:
How To Prepare
Before the X-ray test, tell your doctor if you are or might be pregnant. The risk of radiation exposure to your unborn baby (fetus) must be considered. The risk of damage from the X-rays is usually very low compared with the potential benefits of the test. If a spinal X-ray is absolutely necessary, a lead apron will be placed over your belly to shield your baby from the X-rays.
You may need to take off any jewelry that may be in the way of the X-ray picture, such as if you have a pierced belly button.
You don't need to do anything else before you have this test.
Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what the results will mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information form(What is a PDF document?).
How It Is Done
A spinal X-ray is taken by a radiology technologist. The X-ray pictures are usually read by a doctor who specializes in reading X-rays (radiologist).
You will need to remove any jewelry that may be in the way of the X-ray picture. You may need to take off some of your clothes, depending on which area is examined. You will be given a cloth or paper gown to use during the test. You may be allowed to keep on your underwear if it does not get in the way of the test.
During the X-ray test, you will lie on an X-ray table. If the X-ray is being taken because of a possibly serious injury to your neck or back, to prevent causing more injury a radiologist will look at the first X-ray pictures before taking others. If you have a neck brace (cervical collar) in place, X-ray pictures may be taken and a physical exam done to see whether the brace can be taken off without hurting the spine.
Usually 3 to 5 X-ray pictures are taken. You need to lie very still to avoid blurring the pictures.
A spinal X-ray usually takes about 15 minutes. You will wait about 5 minutes until the X-rays are processed in case more pictures need to be taken. In some clinics and hospitals, X-ray pictures can be shown right away on a computer screen.
How It Feels
You will feel no discomfort from the X-rays. The X-ray table may feel hard, and the room may be cool. You may find that the positions you need to hold are uncomfortable or painful, especially if you have an injury.
There is always a slight risk of damage to cells or tissue from being exposed to any radiation, including the low levels of radiation used for this test. But the risk of damage from the X-rays is usually very low compared with the potential benefits of the test.
For example, the radiation exposure from a chest X-ray is about equal to the natural radiation exposure received during a round-trip airline flight from Boston to Los Angeles (or Montreal to Vancouver) or 10 days in the Rocky Mountains (Denver, Colorado).
In an emergency, a doctor can see the results of a spinal X-ray in a few minutes. Otherwise, a radiologist usually has the official X-ray report ready the next day.
What Affects the Test
Reasons you may not be able to have the test or why the results may not be helpful include:
What To Think About
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