Why We Need to Take X-rays (& How We Do Them Safely)

person holding dental x-ray in front of mouth

When a patient reaches out to make an appointment with us for the first time, they sometimes ask if we HAVE to take a full mouth series of x-rays. If they don’t have good quality x-rays that have been taken within the last 12 months, the answer is, invariably, yes.

Without them, Dr. Yoshida can’t get a full understanding of your current oral health situation – or have a baseline against which he can track changes in your oral health over time.

Simply, x-rays show us aspects of your teeth that are impossible to see in a visual exam. They let us see what’s happening inside of each tooth. They let us see the health of the supporting bone. They let us see infections, cysts, fractures, or other problems below the surface tissues.

So, yes, they’re important.

At the same time, because they involve radiation, dental x-rays aren’t anything we feel should be done routinely, both for your safety and ours. Once we have that first full mouth series, we generally recommend new x-rays only when conditions in your mouth warrant it or you come to us with symptoms of oral disease or dysfunction. Even then, we take only the images needed to understand any developing problems.

Yet, even though digital imaging systems like ours use far less radiation than the old conventional film x-rays, they can still cause problems if used indiscriminately, as a study published earlier this year reminds.

Analyzing data from several dental and health surveys, researchers determined that dental x-rays were responsible for roughly 967 cancers in the US in 2019. Such cancers represent about 3% of all new mouth/throat cancers and about 5% of brain tumors.

dental x-ray equipmentMost of those cancers stemmed from full mouth x-rays and CBCT scans, a kind of imaging that gives a 3D view of the teeth, jaws, and surrounding structures. Used smartly, these scans are invaluable for things like creating orthodontic treatment plans, for instance, or designing a course of oral appliance therapy to address sleep apnea.

Here’s the kicker: According to the study authors, about 75% of the cancers linked to dental x-rays could be prevented through better protective measures, such as taking x-rays much more selectively, as we do here in our Fremont office. This would make the biggest difference, they argue. Regular use of collimators – devices that attach to either the x-ray unit or sensor holder and help focus the beam more narrowly – could reduce radiation exposure even more.

Yet, amazingly, only a fraction of dental offices nationally take such steps. In fact, one survey cited by the authors found that more than 80% of dental hygienists reported times when a dentist ordered x-rays before even doing an exam. A third admitted that, in their office, x-rays were taken mainly according to when insurance companies would pay for them.

We like to say that Fremont Natural Dentistry isn’t your typical dental office. When we see figures like those, we’re even prouder to claim that status.

Top image, “Week 12” by Alegrya, is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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