An x-ray is a test that uses small amounts (doses) of radiation to take pictures of the inside of your body. They are a good way to look at bones and can show changes caused by cancer or other medical conditions. X-rays can also show changes in other organs, such as the lungs.
You usually have x-rays in the imaging department of the hospital, taken by a radiographer. But in an emergency they are sometimes done on the ward.
Why you might have an x-ray
X-rays can show if cancer has spread to other organs outside of the mouth and oropharynx. Combined with other tests this can help your doctors find out the stage of your cancer.
You might have a type of x-ray called an orthopantomogram. This is also called a panorex scan or an OPG. This takes pictures of the area around the upper jawbone (maxilla) and lower jaw bone (mandible). It can show cancer around these bones. It is a useful way to see if you need any dental work before treatment starts.
You might also have a chest x-ray.
There is no special preparation for a standard x-ray. You can eat and drink normally beforehand. You take your medicines as normal. If you are having another type of x-ray such as:
- a barium x-ray
- a CT scan
- an angiogram
You might need to stop eating and drinking for a certain amount of time before the test. Your appointment letter will give you instructions you need to follow.
When you arrive, the radiographer might ask you to change into a hospital gown and take off any jewellery.
During your x-ray
You usually have a chest x-ray standing up against the x-ray machine. If you can’t stand you can have it sitting or lying on the x-ray couch. For x-rays of other areas of the body the best position is usually lying down on the x-ray couch.
The radiographer lines the machine up to make sure it's in the right place. You must keep very still to prevent blurring of the picture.
The radiographer then goes behind a screen. They can still see and hear you. They might ask you to hold your breath for a few seconds while they take the x-ray.
X-rays are painless and quick. You won’t feel anything.
You might have more than one x-ray taken from different angles. The whole process may take a few minutes.
After your x-ray
After the x-ray you can get dressed and go home or back to work.
An x-ray is a safe test for most people but like all medical tests it has some possible risks. Your doctor and radiographer make sure the benefits of having the test outweigh these risks.
The amount of radiation you receive from an x-ray is small and doesn't make you feel unwell.
The risk of the radiation causing any problems in the future is very small. The benefits of finding out what is wrong outweigh any risk there may be from radiation.
Talk to your doctor if you are worried about the possible effects of x-rays.
Fertility and pregnancy
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 delay the x-ray, the radiographer may be able to shield the baby with a lead apron or block.
Getting your results
Ask your doctor how long it will be until you get your x-ray results. Unless your doctor thinks it’s urgent the results might take a couple of weeks.
Waiting for test results can be a worrying time. You might have contact details for a specialist nurse and you can ask them for information. It may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.