What are digital X-rays?


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Digital X-rays are commonly used in medicine and dentistry to obtain images of the teeth and jaws. Traditionally, X-rays are generated using film; with digital radiography, images are created by sensitive digital sensors and displayed on a monitor.

There are three methods of obtaining digital X-rays, including direct, indirect and semi-indirect. With direct X-rays, the sensor is placed inside the mouth; with indirect X-rays, the X-ray scanning unit enables dentists to see traditional film as digital images. Semi-indirect X-rays are generated using a combination of a digital sensor and a scanner, which turns traditional images into digital displays.

Types of digital X-ray

There are various different types of dental X-ray and they are classified as intra-oral and extra-oral X-rays; this relates to whether or not the images are obtained inside (intra-oral) or outside (extra-oral) the mouth.

  • Intra-oral X-rays: intra-oral X-rays are generally more detailed than extra-oral X-rays and they can be used to highlight cavities and decay, assess the condition of bone tissue and check the development of the teeth. Types of intra-oral X-ray include bite-wing X-rays and periapical X-rays. Bite-wing X-rays are produced when the patient bites down on the X-ray film and they help to diagnose decay, check the condition of fillings, assess tooth development and check bone changes, which may have occurred as a result of gum disease. Periapical X-rays produce images of the entire tooth from root to tip and they help to diagnose and monitor abnormalities affecting the bone or the tooth roots; these X-rays are often useful in the treatment of gum disease (also known as periodontal disease or periodontitis) and abscesses.
  • Extra-oral X-rays: examples of extra-oral X-rays include panoramic, MCT (multi-slice computed tomography) or tomograms, sialography and cephalometric projections.
  • Panoramic: panoramic X-rays produce a full image of the mouth in a single shot, showing all the teeth. These X-rays can help to confirm the exact location of fully developed and developing teeth.
  • MCT, also known as tomograms: these X-rays show a specific intersection of the mouth and they can be useful when it’s difficult to see a particular tooth because of an obstruction (such as an overlapping tooth).
  • Sialography: this procedure uses coloured dye to obtain images of the salivary glands; it can help with diagnosis of causes of dry mouth and as a diagnostic test for conditions, such as Sjogren’s syndrome.
  • Cephalometric projections: this type of X-ray is commonly used in orthodontics; it helps to provide a detailed view of the relationship between the teeth and jaws.

When are digital X-rays used?

Digital X-rays can be used for a number of different purposes in both general and specialist dentistry. Digital X-rays provide a more detailed picture of the mouth than can be seen with the naked eye and this enables dentists to make accurate diagnoses, plan treatment and deliver effective outcomes. Some examples of scenarios that may require dental X-rays include:

  • identifying decay and spotting early warning signs
  • analysing damage to the tooth, including chips and fractures
  • checking the development of milk and adult teeth in children
  • detecting impacted wisdom teeth
  • detecting damage to the jaw bone
  • detecting gum disease

Are digital dental X-rays painful?

No, you won’t feel any pain when you have your X-ray and it will only take a couple of minutes.

Are digital X-rays safe?

Many people have concerns about X-rays because they emit radiation; however, digital X-rays only give off a very small dose of radiation and they are much safer than traditional X-rays. If you have concerns about the safety of dental X-rays, don’t hesitate to discuss this with your dentist. You may be advised not to have an X-ray if you are pregnant.


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