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Using an X-Ray to Diagnose Back Pain

X-Ray

Medical X-rays (a form of medical radiography) have been an important diagnostic tool since their discovery in 1895. An X-ray is an imaging test that allows a doctor to look at bony structures inside a patient’s body without surgery. The obvious benefit of this is that X-rays minimize the risk involved in the diagnostic process by eliminating the need for invasive exploratory surgery.

X-ray testing is often ordered by doctors trying to diagnose back pain. X-rays can show the condition and alignment of vertebrae, helping doctors look for fractures, weaknesses, and dislocations. An X-ray is generally the first imaging test a doctor will order before moving on to more advanced forms of radiography, such as MRIs, CT scans, or bone scans.

How X-Rays Work

An X-ray is a form of electromagnetic radiation that, when passed through an object, creates shadows of the structures within that object. X-rays penetrate pass by light molecular weight atoms like hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. These atoms make up skin, muscles, and other soft tissues. Heavier molecular weight atoms such as calcium and iron are those found in bones and metal block X-rays. Thus, when x-ray shine on the body, part are transmitted and part are blocked. X-rays can develop photographic emulsions. The x-ray studied by the physician and seen by patients is a piece of acetate film covered with photographic silver emulsion. The “picture” seen is actually a shadow-gram of the bones within the patient.

X-rays are taken by having the patient lie underneath a device that emits radiation. If possible, the X-ray technician will cover vital organs outside the area to be diagnosed with a lead apron to minimize the exposure to radiation, which can be harmful over time. The X-ray device is aimed at the area of the body to be imaged, and then the X-rays are passed through. The X-ray tech then captures the resulting images on a large piece of film, which is then developed and given to the doctor for review.

The Role of X-Rays in Diagnosing Back Pain

X-rays are useful for viewing vertebrae that may be affected by the following:

  • Arthritis of the spine
  • Bone spurs
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Fractures
  • Tumors

Since the X-rays penetrate through soft tissue and do not capture them on film, they typically will not show herniated discs, bulging discs, sciatica, pinched nerves, or disorders involving the spinal cord. To clearly see soft tissue problems, doctors may order an MRI, CT scan, myelogram, or other more advanced imagery.

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