X-rays are a common diagnostic tool in modern medicine. People have them for broken bones, for dental examinations, and other medical reasons. Yet before most x-rays, the doctor or dentist hands the patient a lead vest, or covers other parts in lead. This leads to the question, just how safe are x-rays?
X-rays were discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895. His first picture was of his wife's hand, showing the bones and her wedding ring. It became something of a sensation, and people took pictures of bones for artistic purposes as much as they did medical. Roentgen was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1901. Despite early claims that x-rays could cure any number of ailments (including blindness) their real utility lay in their use a diagnostic tool. For over a century, doctors have relied on them to help treat their patients.
The x-ray is a crucial tool in medical imaging. Like other methods such as an MRI or a CAT scan, an x-ray allows doctors and other health professionals to see inside the body without the use of invasive procedures. X-rays are most efficient in looking at bones, as the denser structures of bones send back clearer pictures. This is why x-rays are often given when bones are broken. They can also be used to look at soft tissues, such as organs, or to search for tumors and other abnormalities. They are also used to find foreign objects that have become lodged inside the body.
X-rays rely on radiation, but they are not the only piece of modern technology to do so. Televisions and radio also use a form of radiation to relay their signals. There is also ambient radiation from the sun and outer space to which every living thing on the planet is exposed every day. X-rays have also been around and in use longer than other modern devices such as cell phones and computers which also have been found to emit radiation. Unlike some devices which scatter radiation everywhere, x-ray machines are shielded to focus the radiation at a specific target.
As with any source of radiation, the key component with regards to health risks is exposure. Some forms of radiation can cause irreparable harm in a short amount of time. X-rays that are used for medical purposes are used briefly, but in this case the overall health risk is low. Prolonged exposure to an x-ray could be serious, but it would require a much longer time than the milliseconds of exposure which occurs in a hospital or dentist's office. Nor do x-rays linger in the body. This means there is also no cumulative effect, which can create long-term exposure in other radiation types.
X-rays are an important medical tool, and despite the radiation they are considered safe. The lead aprons that patients wear are precautionary measures designed to protect against a possibility rather than certainty. For pregnant women x-rays should be limited, because a fetus is more susceptible to potential harm. For the average person, however, the x-ray itself will not cause any side effects aside form a momentary discomfort caused by the machine or heavy apron (and not the radiation). Some dyes used as indicators in x-rays can cause side mild side effects or allergic reactions, and these should be discussed with the attending physician in advance.