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What are X-rays?

X-rays use high energy rays to take pictures of the inside of your body. They can look at bones to show breaks and other joint problems. They can also look for changes in tissues and organs. There are different types of X-ray, including

Having an X-ray

You can eat and drink normally before an X-ray, except if you are having barium X-rays. You may need to change into a hospital gown. Depending on the type of X-ray you may need to stand against the X-ray machine or to sit or lie on a couch.  The radiographer will ask you to keep still and hold your breath for a few seconds while you have the X-ray.

X-rays are painless and take only a few seconds. You may need to have more than one X-ray to show different angles of the area. You can go home immediately afterwards.

X-rays use a very small amount of radiation. The benefits of finding out what is wrong will far outweigh any risk there may be from radiation.

Results

If you have an emergency X-ray, your doctor will give you your results straight away. If it is not urgent, the results may take 7 to 10 days. Contact your doctor if you have not heard from the X-ray department after this time.

 

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What X-rays are

X-rays use high energy rays to take pictures of the inside of your body. They can look at bones to show breaks and other joint problems. X-rays can also show changes in tissues and organs, such as the breasts and lungs.

There are different types of X-rays, including

  • Chest X-rays to show fluid, signs of infection or tumours in the chest
  • X-rays of a specific part of the body, such as the brain or pelvis
  • Mammograms of the breasts
  • Bone X-rays to show breaks, infection or tumours
  • Barium X-rays that show the outline of body structures

A chest X-ray

Some X-ray machines use film that needs to be developed, like photo film. Others are digital so the radiologist and doctor can look at them on a computer.

CT scans take a series of X-rays of an area of the body, to build up a 3 dimensional (3D) picture. We have a separate page about CT scans.

 

Before your X-ray

You can eat and drink normally before an X-ray, except if you are having barium X-rays.

After checking in with the receptionist in the clinic or department, you usually have to wait until the radiographer calls your name. They will show you to a cubicle where you can change. For most X-rays you need to undress down to your underwear and put on a hospital gown. The radiographer will tell you exactly what you need to wear. For a chest X-ray, you usually only need to take the clothes off the top part of your body. You should take off all your jewellery in the area being X-rayed, so that it doesn’t show up.

 

During the test

Depending on the area of your body being X-rayed, you may need to stand against the X-ray machine, or sit, or lie, on the X-ray couch.

The radiographer will take a couple of minutes to get you into the right position. They line the machine up to make sure it is in the right place. You must keep still, but can breathe normally.

The radiographer will then go behind a screen to take the X-ray. They will ask you to keep still and hold your breath for a few seconds. For chest X-rays the radiographer may ask you to breathe in deeply before holding your breath.

X-rays are painless. You won’t feel or see anything. It only takes a fraction of a second to take. You may need to have more than one X-ray taken from different angles. So the whole process may take a few minutes.

After the X-ray you can get dressed and go home. The clinic will process the X-rays and send them to your GP or specialist (depending on who asked for them).

 

Possible harmful effects

There are no side effects after an X-ray. Many people worry about the possible effects of radiation. But the amount you receive is very small. From each X-ray, it is usually less than the radiation we are exposed to each day from natural sources around us. The amount depends on the type of X-ray you are having. Do remember that the benefits of finding out what is wrong will far outweigh any risk there may be from radiation.

If you are concerned about the possible effects of X-rays, you can talk to your doctor. The ovaries and testicles are particularly sensitive to radiation and you may have lead blocks to shield them if they are in the X-ray field.

It is very important to tell your doctor if you think you may be pregnant, as the X-rays could affect your developing baby. If you can’t postpone the X-ray, the radiographer may be able to shield the baby with a lead block.

 

Your results

Ask your doctor when and how you will get your results. If it is an emergency X-ray, the clinic will usually send the results to your doctor straight away. If it's not urgent, it may take 7 to 10 days.

If your GP has arranged the X-ray, the radiologist will write a report and send it to your GP surgery. If your hospital doctor has arranged it, you may have to wait until your next appointment at the hospital to get the results.

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Updated: 13 August 2013