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Woman giving an xray

X-rays: how they work, who to see, and more

X-rays work by passing high-energy photons through the body to create detailed images of bones, tissues, and organs. These images help diagnose various medical conditions, including fractures, infections, tumors, and more. If you're experiencing unexplained pain, discomfort, or if your healthcare provider suspects an underlying issue, they may recommend an X-ray. To schedule one, consult your primary care physician or specialist, who can guide you through the process or you can call our radiology call center.

How do X-rays work?

X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation, similar to visible light but at a much higher energy level. The machine has a tube in which high-energy electrons are accelerated and then suddenly decelerated when they hit a metal target. This rapid deceleration produces X-ray photons. 

The generated X-ray photons are directed at the part of the body being examined. When the X-ray beam penetrates the body, it interacts with the various tissues it encounters. The degree of interaction depends on the density and composition of the tissues. Dense tissues, such as bones and metal implants, absorb more X-ray photons because of their higher density. As a result, fewer X-ray photons pass through these tissues, creating areas of increased opacity (white) on the X-ray image.

The X-rays that pass through the body strike a detector on the other side. The detector records the pattern of X-rays that have passed through the body. This information is then converted into a digital image that can be viewed on a computer or printed on X-ray film. The variations in X-ray absorption by different tissues create a contrast in the X-ray image, making it possible to see structures inside the body, such as bones, organs, and abnormalities. 

Dignity Health Medical Foundation X-ray technicians are highly trained professionals who know how to get your imaging needs taken care of efficiently and in a timely manner. They have the knowledge needed to assess every factor when taking your X-ray to provide you with a personalized experience, getting your images taken correctly and delivering prompt results.

Schedule your X-ray today

With locations across Northern California, a Dignity Health Advanced Imaging location is just right around the corner. Call our centralized scheduling departments to schedule an appointment today.

How to prepare for an X-ray 

Preparing for an X-ray is usually straightforward, and the specific instructions may vary depending on the type of X-ray you're having and the part of your body being examined. Here are some general guidelines on how to prepare for an X-ray: 

  • Your healthcare provider or the radiology department will provide you with specific instructions for your X-ray. It's essential to follow these instructions carefully. 
  • If you are pregnant or suspect you might be pregnant, inform your healthcare provider and the radiology staff. In most cases, X-rays are avoided during pregnancy, especially in the first trimester, unless it's an emergency and the benefits outweigh the risks. 
  • Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing that does not have metal snaps, buttons, or zippers in the area to be X-rayed. You may be asked to change into a hospital gown if your clothing interferes with the X-ray.
  • Remove all metal objects, including jewelry, watches, eyeglasses, and hearing aids, as they can interfere with the X-ray images. You may need to remove items like bras with underwire or belts with metal buckles. 
  • Inform your healthcare provider and the radiology staff about any medications you are taking, especially if you are on medications that contain barium or iodine, as they can affect some types of X-ray procedures. 
  • For certain X-ray procedures, such as those involving the abdomen or gastrointestinal tract, you may be asked to fast for a specific period before the test. Follow the fasting instructions provided to you. 
  • After the X-ray, follow any post-procedure instructions given to you, such as resuming normal activities or any restrictions. 

Who should you see for an X-ray?  

  • Primary care physician: Your first point of contact should be your primary care physician. They can evaluate your symptoms, determine if an X-ray is necessary, and provide a referral if required. 
  • Specialists: Depending on your specific condition, a specialist such as an orthopedic surgeon, pulmonologist, or other health care specialist may 
  • recommend or perform X-rays related to their area of expertise. 
  • Urgent care centers: If you have an urgent medical issue, you can visit an urgent care center. They often have X-ray facilities on-site to evaluate injuries or illnesses that require immediate attention. 

What makes X-rays different from other imaging procedures?

X-rays are commonly used for imaging bones and certain soft tissues. They are especially valuable for detecting fractures, assessing the integrity of the skeletal system, and visualizing dense structures like teeth and metal implants. While other imaging techniques, like an ultrasound or MRI, are often used for imaging internal organs, monitoring pregnancies, and obtaining detailed soft tissue imaging, including the brain, muscles, and organs. 

X-ray procedures are typically quick and can be performed on an outpatient basis. The results are available immediately, making them suitable for diagnosing and assessing certain conditions rapidly. Some other imaging methods may take longer to complete, and the results may not be available immediately, requiring further analysis by a radiologist.


Frequently asked X-ray questions

X-rays are generally safe when performed by trained professionals. While they involve a small amount of radiation exposure, the benefits of accurate diagnosis often outweigh the risks. Special precautions are taken to minimize radiation exposure.

X-rays are used to diagnose a wide range of conditions, including fractures, dental issues, lung problems, digestive disorders, and more. They are valuable for visualizing bones and certain soft tissues.

X-rays are used to diagnose a wide range of conditions, including fractures, dental issues, lung problems, digestive disorders, and more. They are valuable for visualizing bones and certain soft tissues.

No, X-rays themselves are painless. You might need to hold a certain position briefly, which can be uncomfortable, but the X-ray itself is painless.

The cost of X-ray procedures can vary widely depending on factors like location, type of X-ray, and whether you have insurance. Prices typically range from $100 to $1,000 or more. Unsure whether your health insurance is accepted at Dignity Health offices? Find a full list of accepted insurances here.

Meet our radiologists

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