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Dental and medical x-rays are commonly misunderstood as vectors of cancer when they are, in fact, lifesaving technology. By knowing how x-ray machines work, the options available, the risks, and the benefits, dental patients can feel more comfortable.

Increasing awareness of cancer and widespread anxiety over dental visits have put dental x-rays under increasingly heavy fire. Are they really necessary for dental health, or are they just the lazy man’s way of detecting cavities? Furthermore, doesn’t x-ray exposure cause cancer? With myth and fact garbled together beyond recognition, it’s time to set the record straight with some facts about you and your dentist’s x-ray machine.

How do X-Rays work?


X-rays are a high energy spectrum of invisible light that can penetrate solid surfaces.

When the human body is exposed to x-rays, teeth and bones absorb more of the rays than soft tissues, creating a bright white color on the radiograph.

Tooth decay and other infections look darker than the surrounding tooth because they, like soft tissues, are softer and don’t contain as much calcium.

The Machine

How Stuff Works explains that the x-ray machine itself starts with two electrodes inside a glass vacuum tube. An electric current passes between the two electrodes, creating ultra-high voltage electricity. The metal in the electrodes reacts with the electric current on the atomic level with such force that it creates x-rays.

High-voltage electricity can make the surrounding area very hot, so the machine has two cooling systems. The first rotates one of the electrodes with a small motor, preventing the electric current from focusing on one spot for too long. The second system is an oil bath, keeping the machine cool similar to the way oil cools your car’s engine.

The entire machine is surrounded by a thick lead shield to prevent radiation from escaping, with only a narrow opening for the x-ray beam to pass through. This beam will travel through multiple filters before reaching the patient.

Why are they so important?

While dentists are trained in a variety of techniques for identifying tooth decay and other dental problems, what they see with their eyes doesn't tell the whole story. By getting a picture of what’s going on under the surface, x-rays keep dentists in the know about what they can expect in the future.

X-rays enable dentists to spot and diagnose infections, abscesses, cysts, and developmental abnormalities such as impacted wisdom teeth.

As technology improves, x-rays are also playing an important part in oral cancer detection, according to Blackfalds Dental.

Because x-rays provide such a reliable means for monitoring internal processes, they are particularly important for kids and teenagers. X-rays help dentists to make sure their teeth are coming in properly.

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