Ask a Hygienist: Dental X-Rays

Dental X-Rays! Why and When?
by Laurena Marques, BSDH, RDH

Today I’m giving you the scoop on dental x-rays – why we take them and what exactly we are trying to find. Radiographs are an integral part of diagnostics during your dental examination.  In order to provide you with the highest standard of care, we need to see the entire picture… no pun intended. 

What are you looking for when you take x-rays?

Dental radiographs are used to look for a variety of issues – even letting us see problems before painful symptoms begin. Here are some of the oral concerns the dentist can identify with diagnostic imaging:

  • Cavities: When we look at your mouth, we are only able to see the top and side surfaces of your teeth. Cavities often form on the in-between surfaces, and radiographs will allow your dentist to see cavities or the beginnings of cavities forming.
  • Existing fillings: An x-ray will show re-developing decay or areas breaking down around existing dental work.
  • Bone structure surrounding the teeth: Looking at the bone levels surrounding the teeth will identify bone loss caused by gum disease.  X-rays can also identify jaw problems, cysts, tumors, or abscesses.
  • Infection: X-rays will show abnormalities at the tip of tooth roots, indicating an abscess or infection. An infection may show up in an x-ray before it shows symptoms that you can see or feel. Sometimes, infections can form years after prior injury.
  • Fractures: An x-ray can show a fractured tooth or jaw.
  • Check the location teeth:  X-rays help us evaluate teeth that are not forming in the right place or are too crowded to grow in properly, such as impacted wisdom teeth. The doctor can also evaluate crowded or overlapping teeth.  In children, x-rays also monitor tooth development and evaluate the need for orthodontics.

But if I have a cavity or other problem, won’t I feel pain?

Typically, you will not feel pain unless a cavity has become larger and approaches the nerve of the tooth. Some people will not feel infections at all! When decay reaches the nerve of the tooth, you are at a higher risk of needing a crown or root canal. It is recommended to treat a cavity while it is small to prevent more extensive dental work.

How safe are x-rays? What about pregnancy?

At Five Pines, we use digital technology which is up to 70% less radiation than conventional radiographs! The technology has improved so much that lead aprons are no longer required for exposure. However, we still recommend a lead apron for pregnant patients, children, and those who would still like to use the apron as a precautionary measure.

We still recommend regular check-up x-rays for pregnant patients to identify problems that may need treatment. According to the American College of Radiology, no single diagnostic x-ray has a radiation dose significant enough to cause adverse effects in a developing embryo or fetus.

This infographic compares a dental x-ray with other sources of radiation – it is a helpful comparison!

How often do I need x-rays?

We base the frequency of x-rays on a variety of factors that vary from patient to patient. Risk factors such as dental history, medical history, age, medications, diet, and oral hygiene all play a part in the collaborative decision of radiograph frequency.  We generally recommend a full set of x-rays every 3-5 years, and limited check-up bitewings every 1 to 2 years.

I saw this sign on the wall of a chiropractic office that was the perfect illustration of radiographs: “To see is to know. Not to see is to guess. And we won’t guess about your health!” It’s important to us that you know exactly what we are looking at when we are evaluating your teeth and want you to be involved with understanding your health.

Do you have a dental question for Laurena? Email clinic@fivepinesdental.com and let us know what’s on your mind.