X-rays are one of the best known diagnostic tests. They are generally indicated only for patients who have had pain for more than one month or who have had a significant injury. Patients over the age of 60 should have X-rays at the onset of pain if there has been no injury.
During an X-ray, low doses of invisible electromagnetic energy with short wavelengths pass through the body and cast a “shadow” photograph onto a film or screen. Since bones are dense, they absorb X-rays well and show up as white on the film, while the tissues show up more darkly.
A key benefit of X-rays is that they can be performed quickly. Since they highlight the bones, X-rays demonstrate injury in a back bone, a spinal tumor, or a spinal deformity. They may also be ordered to diagnose degenerative disc disease, sciatica, scoliosis, kyphosis, and stenosis. Simple X-rays, however, are not effective in finding injuries to the soft tissues. Still, X-rays often help the physician determine what other tests should be given.
During an X-ray test, you lie on a table, with the adjustable X-ray machine above you. You won’t feel anything when the rays pass through your body. The technician will ask you to remain still while the X-ray is being taken so that the image will not be blurred. For scoliosis and kyphosis, X-rays are often taken standing.
The exposure time during an X-ray is just a fraction of a second, and with modern equipment, the radiation dose is very low. However, X-rays are usually not performed if there is the possibility of pregnancy, and a lead shield may be used to cover the patient’s reproductive organs from the X-ray beam.