Question:There has been a lot discussion recently in the Detroit Free Press, The Today Show and on the internet regarding the safety of x-rays.  Should I be concerned about the frequency of dental x-rays especially since I am a regular patient and take my dental health seriously?

Answer: Radiation occurs naturally from the environment.  According to Kodak most exposure comes from breathing radon in the atmosphere.  We’re exposed to cosmic radiation from space and terrestrial radiation from radioactive isotopes in stone and building materials. We’re even exposed from internal sources. A radioisotope of potassium is found in all living things. In addition to these natural sources of radiation, we get small doses from miscellaneous sources including tobacco, watches with luminous dials, color television, and others. A significant source of man-made radiation is diagnostic exposure in the healing arts. It is estimated that a typical full-mouth intraoral examination gives the patient the equivalent of 1.2-7 days of environmental background exposure. A typical panoramic examination gives the equivalent of about one day; and the usual 4-film (D-speed film) bite-wing study (round collimation), the equivalent of 7 hours or approximately three tenths of a day. Note that other common procedures in  medical radiology deliver much larger doses to the patient than dental x-ray studies.

The benefits of the use of x-rays in dentistry certainly outweigh the risks when proper  safety procedures are followed. The dentist is responsible for all aspects of safe radiation exposure in the dental office. The dentist selects the patient who needs radiographs,determines which radiographs are needed, takes or supervises the exposure of the films and interprets the images. An important method for keeping patient exposure as low as reasonably achievable is the appropriate prescription of radiographs.

Periapical or bitewing radiographs are commonly used by dentists to observe the entire structure of the mouth, including a patient’s teeth, roots, jaw and facial placement. These X-rays also can help determine the presence or degree of periodontal disease, bone infections and many abnormal growths, such as cysts and tumors. A panoramic X-ray reveals in greater detail the upper and lower teeth and parts of the jaw in a single image. More importantly, a patient’s carotid arteries, located on each side of the neck, pass through the region visualized on the panoramic X-ray, making it possible for a dentist to view these significant blockages, which appear as patchy white spots.