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Medical X-Rays

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This page describes how x-rays are used to diagnose medical conditions.

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From broken bones to life threatening illnesses, x-ray machines help diagnose and treat numerous medical conditions. In fact, seven out of ten people receive either a medical or dental x-ray every year.

Literally thousands of x-ray machines are used daily in medicine and industry for examinations, inspections, and process controls. Because of their many uses, x-rays are the single largest source of man-made radiation exposure.

In a clinic setting you are most likely to encounter radiation from a diagnostic x-ray. X-rays pass more easily through the soft tissues of our bodies than through our bones and organs. After passing through our body, x-rays strike a special x-ray film, creating an image showing shadows where our bones, organs and other dense masses have absorbed x-rays.

Like microwaves, radio waves, and visible light, the x-rays produced by an x-ray machine are a form of electromagnetic radiation. Unlike microwaves, radio waves, and visible light, x-rays are ionizing radiation, which is capable of removing electrons from atoms and damaging living cells and the DNA of those cells. However, since x-ray machines only produce radiation during operation and the amount of radiation used is small, resulting medical problems are unlikely.

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Who is protecting you

The States

State radiation programs, in cooperation with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), regulate, register, and inspect x-ray equipment used in medical, dental, and veterinary procedures.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

While the states regulate use of x-ray equipment, FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) regulates the manufacturing of electronic radiation-emitting products.

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

The mission of NIST is to develop and promote measurement, standards, and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade, and improve the quality of life. Although a non-regulatory federal agency, NIST makes x-ray machines safer for patients and workers by updating the technology and measurement standards upon which x-ray machines are based.

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What you can do to protect yourself

Only trained and qualified persons should operate x-ray machines. You can best protect yourself by only having x-ray procedures performed at clinics and hospitals by qualified personnel. You should follow any instructions given by your doctor, nurse, or the x-ray technician. To prevent any unnecessary exposures, a lead apron may be used to shield the parts of your body not being x-rayed.

Women who are pregnant should not have x-rays of their pelvic regions, lumbar spine, and abdomen, unless absolutely necessary; so tell your doctor if you are pregnant, might be pregnant or are nursing.

Finally, before having an x-ray, if you have any concerns or questions, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor, or the x-ray technician.

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Gamma Rays
April 5, 2012. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
This page uses a question and answer format to provide basic information on gamma rays, including how they differ from x-rays.
Ionizing Radiation Fact Book (22p, 1.12Mb[about pdf format]) [EPA 402-F-06-061]
April 5, 2012. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
This booklet offers basic information on ionizing radiation, including in-depth definitions of alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays and x-rays.
Ionizing and Non-Ionizing Radiation
April 5, 2012. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
This page provides basic information on ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.
Ionizing Radiation Machines (X-ray) exit EPA
April 5, 2012. Florida Department of Health
This page offers information about x-ray machines.
State Radiation Protection Programs exit EPA
April 5, 2012. Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors
This page provides information on state radiation protection programs and their roles.
We Want You to Know About X-Rays: Get the Picture on Protection
April 5, 2012. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Radiation-Emitting Products
This page offers information on the risks and benefits of medical x-rays, as well as information on what you should know before having a medical x-ray.

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