Dental X-Ray Myths & Facts – What You Need to Know

The word “radiation” makes people nervous, which is why patients and parents frequently ask, “Are dental x-rays safe for me?” or “Are dental x-rays safe for my kids?” The answer is, absolutely! We understand the concern, however, dental x-rays, particularly the low-dose, digital x-rays we use at Sturgill Orthodontics, emit a negligible amount of radiation. It accounts for just a tiny sliver of the radiation you’re exposed to on an overall basis by just walking around, eating (even food contains radiation) and breathing. Our patients’ safety is our main priority and we invest in the most up-to-date technology and equipment to reduce the already miniscule risk even further. X-rays are a crucial component in the diagnostic and treatment planning processes, so it’s unfortunate that there’s incorrect information abound about them. We’ll help shed some light on the subject by discussing dental x-ray myths and facts.

What are Dental X-Rays?

X-rays, or radiographs in doctor-speak, give Dr. Sturgill the ability to see beneath the skin, under the gums and between and inside the teeth (kind of like a super power). Dental x-rays and orthodontic x-rays are the same thing except dentists tend to focus on the individual teeth since they have to see up close enough to detect tooth decay, while orthodontists need a broader picture, such as that obtained with a panoramic x-ray. This allows us to determine the position, size, and shape of your teeth and jawbone and come up with an effective, personalized treatment plan that will bring about stable results and ensure your smile will be harmonious with the rest of your face. We can determine if surgery, extractions or any dental work are necessary prior to treatment. Additionally, if we do uncover problems during the process, like a cyst, tumor, impaction or an abscess, we can refer you to the appropriate specialist.

For orthodontic purposes, we take extraoral (outside of the mouth) x-rays, typically of the panoramic or cephalometric varieties, which give us a complete image of your oral structures, including your upper and lower jaws, temporomandibular joints, teeth, sinus cavities and nasal area. Panoramic x-rays show the whole mouth and oral structures in one x-ray and cephalometric x-rays are taken of the entire side of your head so we can see the jaw and teeth in relation to your profile. With both types of x-rays, your head is positioned between a mechanical arm and an electronic sensor and as they move around your head, a low dose of ionizing radiation is projected through you and onto the sensor. The sensor is connected to a computer and the image shows up on the screen in seconds. This is a huge advantage over traditional x-rays since film is time-consuming to develop and the chemicals used to develop the film aren’t great for the environment. Even dentists who do digital, intraoral x-rays can now let you bypass the uncomfortable, drool-inducing bitewings and instead, they place tiny electronic sensors in your mouth.

Setting the Record Straight on Dental X-Ray Risks

Myth: The Dental X-Ray Radiation Dose is Very High

Fact: We’re surrounded by radiation. It’s above us in the form of cosmic radiation, which is caused by particles that shower down from space thanks to the sun and stars. People who live at higher altitudes, actually receive more of it. Then there’s terrestrial radiation, which refers to radioactive materials that naturally occur in the Earth itself and those that are in all air, water and even our food. Now, let’s not forget about internal radiation that exists within our own bodies from birth. All of these are natural background sources and account for about 50% of our radiation exposure. The other 50% comes from man-made sources, including luminous watches, microwaves, smoke detectors, road construction materials, televisions and medical sources, such as x-rays and nuclear medicine procedures.

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Basically, we’re constantly being bombarded with radiation and the majority of it is unavoidable. The average annual dose of radiation from both man-made and natural sources for people in the United States is 6.2 millisieverts. Millisieverts are a unit of measurement for the amount of ionizing radiation we absorb. This amount is safe for humans. To put it in perspective, the average intraoral x-ray emits .005 millisieverts and an orthodontic panoramic x-ray averages .01 millisieverts. The radiation from the panoramic x-ray is the same amount you’d receive during a two-and-a-half-hour airplane flight, less than what you’d receive from a flight from New York to Los Angeles and about seven times less than what you’d get from living in a stone, brick or concrete building for a year. As you can see, dental x-rays are just a fraction of your yearly dose of radiation. Plus, those numbers are based on older x-ray machines that use film. With digital x-rays, you’re receiving as much as 80% less radiation, making its contribution miniscule.

While there aren’t side effects of dental x-rays and the amount of radiation emitted is safe, it’s still important to minimize your overall exposure as high doses of radiation aren’t good for you. Dr. Sturgill abides by the ALARA principle. ALARA stands for “As Low as Reasonably Achievable” and means only doing x-rays when the benefits outweigh the risks and taking all of the precautions necessary to ensure the dose is well below the allowable limit. At Sturgill Orthodontics, we follow the guidelines by relying on low-dose, digital x-rays and protecting patients with shielding. We also don’t do x-rays as a matter of routine, aside from your first appointment. At the consultation, we take a few different kinds of x-rays in order to develop an accurate diagnosis and precise treatment plan and after that, we only repeat them when it’s in your best interest.

Myth: Dental assistants and doctors leave the room when taking x-rays because x-rays are dangerous.

Fact: Radiation exposure has a cumulative effect and if your long-term dose is excessive, it can be dangerous. Patients undergo one or two x-rays at an appointment and the average person in good health is having medical imaging done a few times a year at most. This is perfectly fine and, as we mentioned earlier, you’re receiving a negligible amount of radiation. The medical professionals taking the x-rays, on the other hand, are doing it multiple times per day on a daily basis. If they exposed themselves to radiation every single time, they’d be receiving a dose that far surpassed the average person and it would carry risks. The ALARA principle applies to our team members too and just as with patients, we keep their exposure to a minimum.

Myth: Dental x-rays are unsafe for children.

Fact: Dental x-rays are safe for kids. Yet, they are more sensitive than adults to radiation exposure and since they’re smaller, they should receive a lower dose. More than 80 healthcare organizations joined together and created the Image Gently campaign, which is an initiative aimed at ensuring professionals “child size” radiographic examination of kids in dentistry and medicine. The basic tenets include using thyroid collars, adjusting the dosage and exposure time to meet the needs of children, only taking x-rays when necessary and not on a routine basis and utilizing the fastest image receptor possible, preferably digital sensors. Dr. Sturgill follows all of the guidelines and by investing in the most cutting-edge, up-to-date x-ray equipment, we’re able to provide the safest radiographic examinations possible and dramatically decrease the amount of radiation, as well as the exposure time, for all of our patients. Our kid-friendly digital x-ray machine has settings for children, which is amazing for patient safety.

Myth: Dental x-rays cause cancer.

Fact: The odds of developing cancer from dental x-rays are slim to none. Living in Denver for a year exposes you to more radiation than dental x-rays and people aren’t fleeing high-altitude locations. Since we use low-dose, digital x-rays, follow the ALARA principle and take all of the recommended safety precautions at our office, the cancer risk is essentially non-existent. One of the reasons why the words “radiation” and “cancer” are instantly linked is because of nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and the high rate of cancer that occurred in the aftermath. However, people were exposed to hundreds of thousands of times more radiation than what’s emitted by a dental x-ray. Also, the dose was on top of their normal day-to-day exposure. When experts consider the average person’s exposure and what the safe levels are, they’re factoring in medical imaging procedures. It’s not comparing apples to apples.

Myth: You should have dental x-rays taken every year.

Fact: Decades ago it was normal to have x-rays taken at all of your annual dental check-ups. However, it’s actually not always necessary and part of the ALARA principle is performing x-rays only when there are clear benefits and when the images are crucial for developing a diagnosis. If your oral health is good and you don’t have any signs of gum disease or tooth decay, you can probably go longer than a year between x-rays. Orthodontists needs to take them at the onset of treatment and sometimes during treatment to make sure things are progressing as planned but, otherwise, they’re not a routine thing.

Myth: Nursing mothers should avoid dental x-rays.

Fact: This is false. The radiation from dental x-rays won’t linger in the body and expose a baby to radiation. In fact, nursing mothers don’t need to take any more precautions than anyone else.

Myth: Dental x-rays are the most dangerous type of x-ray because they’re taken close to the brain.

Fact: Dental x-rays are the most targeted form of x-ray, aside from those of your hands and feet, which are comparable. They’re only focused on a very small area, unlike an x-ray of your abdomen or chest, which captures a much larger portion of your body. This means you’re receiving a significantly lower dose of radiation. In fact, the American College of Radiation has a helpful x-ray radiation comparison chart and you’ll notice, an x-ray of your chest emits hundreds of times more radiation than a dental x-ray and that’s when using film. Digital x-rays are even safer. While all types of x-rays are considered safe, if you’re basing the level risk of risk on how much radiation is emitted, dental x-rays would be among the safest. Additionally, with the panoramic and cephalometric x-rays orthodontists take, the machine is in constant motion, so no one area of the head is receiving a steady, concentrated stream. Any cancer risk associated with radiation is based on your cumulative exposure and not necessarily what body part is being x-rayed.

Myth: X-rays aren’t really important and just allow the orthodontist to charge more.

Fact: We do not charge for x-rays during treatment and we also don’t charge for the panoramic x-ray at your consultation or during the growth and development program. That’s because x-rays are essential for diagnosing patients and creating a customized treatment plan that will be effective and efficient. Without them, it would be impossible to produce lasting, dramatic results that complement your facial features. The only x-rays that we charge for at our office are cephalometric ones since they require the doctor to trace the jaw growth in order to develop a treatment plan. When you break a leg, the doctor has to take x-rays in order to confirm it’s broken, see where the break occurred and determine how severe it is in order to decide what the correct treatment is for optimal healing. You wouldn’t think of skipping the x-ray in that case. Well, believe it or not, orthodontic treatment also involves bones and we too have to find out if you have a problem with your bite, what’s causing it, how severe it is and what needs to move where to fix it. We’re not just cosmetically shifting your teeth with braces or Invisalign; your bite is a complex relationship between your teeth and jaws.

The Benefits of Digital X-Rays

We’re not saying x-ray machines that rely on film are to be avoided at all costs. If you head to the emergency room in serious need of an x-ray and they happen to use film, consider the benefits of receiving the appropriate care before you make a run for it. However, there are distinct advantages to the digital, low-dose x-ray equipment we use. Here are a few ways in which digital x-rays benefit our patients:

  • As we noted, digital x-rays machines expose patients to up to 80% less radiation as compared to ones that use film. Less radiation is always a positive.
  • Digital radiographic equipment reduces exposure time by capturing images in seconds. Once they’re on our computer, we can see your oral and facial structures from a variety of angles and extract a multitude of images without having to take more x-rays.
  • In addition to limiting exposure time, the speed at which we can take digital x-rays is super convenient. The images show up almost instantly on our screen, so there’s no long wait while the film develops and appointments are shorter. For parents of young children, we all know how hard it is for them to sit still and now you don’t have to worry about squirming kiddos!
  • Digital images are easy to share with your other dental health providers. If you need to see a specialist for additional treatment, we can coordinate your care and send them your records, potentially allowing you to have one less x-ray taken.
  • Digital x-rays are better for the environment. Film needs to be developed using chemicals that aren’t earth-friendly. Also, the digital images are stored on the computer, so they don’t need to be copied and mailed. We can send them electronically, reducing waste.
  • Digital imaging is much more precise than film. We use software that gives us the ability to zoom in and out, adjust the contrast and brightness or enhance the picture. Since the x-rays are clearer and have more detail, it improves diagnoses and clinical outcomes.

We hope all of that information put your mind at ease. The safety, comfort, and satisfaction of our Johnson City Invisalign and braces patients is important to us and we want you to be thrilled with how your smile looks and functions. That’s why we need to gather different diagnostic records, x-rays included, before deciding on a course of action. Our low-dose, cutting-edge, digital radiographic equipment lets us do this in the safest, fastest and least invasive way possible while exposing you or your child to minimal radiation. We always explain exactly what we’re doing in detail but if you still have questions or concerns about x-rays in general or why they’re needed in a specific instance, please feel free to ask us.