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Doctors often use chest X-rays to help diagnose coronary heart disease, among other types of tests. This article outlines what happens during a chest X-ray.

Heart disease can be deadly. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent a heart-disease related fatality. Early diagnosis is key. Once you have been diagnosed, doctors can initiate your treatment protocol, which can help prevent heart attack or stroke. Therefore, if you feel any symptoms that are indicative of heart disease — such as chest pain — you need to go see your doctor immediately. If your doctor suspects that you have heart disease, then he or she will send you off for a number of different tests, one of which is a chest X-ray.

What would prompt my doctor to ask me to get a chest X-ray?

If you present to your doctor with symptoms that suggest that you have may heart disease, then they will likely send you to get a chest X-ray. These are the symptoms that can prompt a doctor to send you to have a chest X-ray:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain (angina)
  • Feeling extremely fatigued
  • Fainting
  • Irregular heartbeat

A doctor may also ask you to do a chest X-ray as part of a routine work-up before undergoing heart surgery.

What is a chest X-ray?

A chest X-ray uses a low level of radiation to help visualize and illustrate a picture of your chest, including the organs located in it. Using a chest X-ray, doctors are able to see the structure of your heart, lungs and blood vessels. However, a chest X-ray does not let you see the inside structures of your heart. A chest X-ray can allow doctors to look at your chest bones, heart and lungs to see if there is anything wrong.

Other things that chest X-rays can allow doctors to do is to see if:

  • Your pacemaker, defibrillator or other devices in your chest are still located where they should be.
  • Everything is okay with any potential catheters or chest tubes that may be in your chest.

How do I prepare for an X-ray?

X-rays are easy and you usually don’t need to prepare for them. You will show up to the location where the X-ray will take place and the whole procedure will not take longer than 10 to 15 minutes. You will have to take off all your clothing and jewelry around your chest and then put on a hospital gown. You will stand up against a plate that takes the photograph as well as a radiographer. Then, you will have to stand perfectly still, take a deep breath and hold your breath, which helps make the quality of image that the machine produces to be much better.

Infants undergoing a chest X-ray may need to be restrained from moving too much. The X-ray machine will only be on for a very small amount of time – a fraction of a second. In this brief time, a small beam of X-ray will go through your chest and then take the picture using a special film. After the X-ray has been taken, you can breathe normally again.

In some cases, there may be two images taken, one from the front and one from the side. Sometimes, the doctor will ask for extra pictures and so you may get chest X-rays taken from a variety of different angles which only take a few seconds at a time. The whole procedure ends up taking only a few minutes and the radiographer will make sure to check the images before they leave to see if they are fine. The film only takes approximately 10 minutes to make. They will let you know when the result will be available to your doctor.

The procedure is painless and relatively simple, though one of the downsides is that the photographic plate can be a little cold and hard.

One important thing to keep in mind is that you have to let your doctor or technician know if you are pregnant because radiation can harm the fetus.

What can an X-ray tell my doctor?

There are several things that an X-ray can help inform your doctor about your body and your heart health. Some of the things that an X-ray can show your doctor include:

  • Whether you have any fluid build-up inside your lungs or around it.
  • Whether you have enlarged heart.
  • Whether you have any blood vessels problems, including an aortic aneurysm (when there is a bulge in your aorta, the blood vessel that takes blood from your heart to your body).
  • Whether you have congenital heart disease, which are heart problems that are present since birth.
  • Whether you have any build-up of calcium in your heart or blood vessels. This is especially dangerous as calcium build-up makes heart attacks much more likely.

Are chest X-rays harmful?

Chest X-rays are not considered harmful because only a very small amount of radiation goes through your chest when you are undergoing the procedure. The amount of radiation you get from an X-ray is actually a fifth of the dose that a person gets every year from natural sources, including the sun and the ground. Therefore, this level of radiation is not considered harmful or dangerous. Again, if you are pregnant, let your doctor know because even such low amount of radiation can be dangerous and should be avoided.

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  • Norris, R. M., Brandt, P. W. T., Caughey, D. E., Lee, A. J., & Scott, P. J. (1969). A new coronary prognostic index. The Lancet, 293(7589), 274-278.
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  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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