Radiographic imaging is an essential part of diagnosis, documentation and treatment planning at any modern dental practice. Digital x-ray technologies provide numerous advantages over their film predecessors. Digital radiography systems allow clinicians and patients to instantly view of images on a computer, iPad, or operatory TV screen at a higher resolution than film. Digital files can easily be shared with insurance companies or referral partners, and because they can be stored on a hard drive, they are easier to manage and find. Along with these advantages digital x-ray technologies use less radiation than film counterparts, making it safer for patients and clinicians while also provide practices with a greener option as they eliminate the use of photo processing chemicals. Digital imaging goes beyond just adding efficiencies to the dental imaging process because the latest technologies allow clinicians to capture images and use them in ways impossible with film. Cone beam computed tomography systems create highly accurate 3D digital models of the target anatomy, and digital imaging software allows these images to be enhanced for improved diagnostics and greater precision in treatment planning. Digital imaging technologies are changing the dental industry and improving the lives of dental patients.

X-rays over your lifetime

The medical decision to have an x-ray exam weighs the likelihood of benefit against the potential risk from radiation. For exams that use a small amount of radiation (i.e., chest x-ray), this is generally an easy decision. Other imaging exams may use larger amounts. A radiologist may want to consider your history of radiation exposure before recommending a procedure. Computed tomography (CT), interventional radiology, and nuclear medicine exams may each use a modest amount of radiation. If you have had frequent x-ray exams and change healthcare providers, it is a good idea to keep a record of your x-ray history for yourself. This can help your doctor make an informed decision. It is very important to tell your new doctor, the imaging technologist, or radiologist if you are pregnant before having an exam that uses radiation.

You may have heard news stories about studies that show a link between having imaging exams and developing cancer. There are many limitations with these studies. For instance, some studies about CT scans:

  • do not provide direct radiation exposure measurements for each patient

  • do not give the reason the patient had the scan

  • lack the beneficial information derived from the imaging scan

Also, many experts question the way the study authors use statistical models for judging the radiation risk involved. Some experts argue the study authors' methods have too much uncertainty for the results they report. Regardless of the disagreement, the studies are valuable in the sense that they raise awareness of how important it is to minimize a patient's radiation exposure. This has led to many advancements in medical imaging. These advancements have reduced radiation exposure while still providing high quality images necessary for diagnosis.

It is important to know why you need an imaging exam and to discuss which exam will best answer the medical question at the lowest radiation dose. Many medical imaging procedures have no or very low radiation dose. Your doctor or radiologist can discuss the benefit of detecting an immediate, and potentially life-threatening disease or injury versus the concern about a future risk of cancer.

Pregnancy and X-rays

There is plenty to think about when you are pregnant, especially as a first-time mom. After all, you are suddenly responsible not just for yourself, but for another little being. Experts agree that you can ease your mind about one subject -- the science is clear -- it is safe to get dental x-rays while pregnant.

The FDA, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American College of Radiology, all agree on the safety of dental x-rays during pregnancy. In 2017, they released a joint publication saying x-rays, “when properly done, do not involve any risk to the unborn child.”

But if you are like many new mothers, you want all the information about getting dental x-rays while pregnant and breastfeeding, before making a decision.

Radiation from Dental X-Rays

To help you make a fully informed decision about getting dental x-rays while pregnant, let’s stop for a quick minute to understand x-rays.

An x-ray is a type of electromagnetic radiation that passes through most objects, including your body. When x-rays travel through any part of your body to an x-ray detector on the other side, an image appears showing the “shadows” formed by objects inside. Bones and teeth are dense, so they produce a high contrast and show up white on the x-ray film or digital image. Any holes, like breaks in your bone or cavities in your teeth, show up in shades of grey.

The concern over x-rays comes from the radiation. Very high levels of radiation carry risks including miscarriage, birth defects, and some cancers. But these high levels only happen during certain medical treatments, like radiation treatment for cancer. The dose of radiation during a dental x-ray is comparatively very low.

What Science Says About Dental X-Rays While Pregnant

Scientists have a large amount of information about radiation during pregnancy because they studied women and children affected by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Their conclusion: you need a very high dose of x-ray radiation during pregnancy to cause any harm to your baby, and dental x-rays come nowhere near this dose. As an easy comparison: two dental x-ray films expose you to just .02mSv of radiation, which is the same amount of radiation you get from a seven- hour plane ride. For radiation to cause any harm to your baby, you need at least 2,500 times that amount.

In addition to this, the small dose of radiation you get from a dental x-ray while pregnant is very concentrated and pointed at your mouth. Your baby is not directly exposed to the x-ray beam at all.

The Safety of Dental X-Rays When Breastfeeding

Even after delivery, many new moms worry about exposing their babies to harmful chemicals passed through their milk during breastfeeding. But just like getting a dental x-ray while pregnant is safe, x-rays are safe for breastfeeding mothers and babies alike.

Talking to US About Dental X-Rays While Pregnant

You should always let your dentist know if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or suspect you might be pregnant. Doctors recommend wearing a lead apron provided by your dentist during an x-ray to block any scattered radiation from your reproductive organs. This is true whether or not you are pregnant, or for that matter, whether you are a man or a woman. The International Atomic Energy Agency says lead aprons reduce exposure to x-ray radiation by over 90%.

The American Dental Association also recommends that during dental x-rays, pregnant women, women of childbearing age, and children use a leaded thyroid collar to further protect themselves.

Dental care during pregnancy is a crucial part of your overall preventive care routine. Talk to your dentist about getting x-rays while pregnant as a part of your regular preventive care visit.

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