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Diagnostic Evaluations

X-ray

An X-ray uses electromagnetic radiation to create images. The image is recorded on a film, called a radiograph. The images appear light or dark, depending on the absorption rates of the various tissues. For example, dense materials, such as bone, show up white on a film, while fat and muscle may appear in varying shades of gray.

Originally, X-rays were used for imaging bones because they were easily distinguishable from soft tissues on films available at the time. Today, improvements such as better photographic films, more accurate focusing systems and more sensitive detection methods have led to better imaging technology and results. Using lower-exposure levels, fine detail and subtle differences may be distinguished in tissue density. Advances in technology have led to the development of computed tomography (CT), which combines multiple X-ray images into a 3-D model.

A valuable medical tool, the X-ray is a non-invasive procedure used for diagnosing disease, monitoring therapy and planning surgical treatment. X-rays may also be used in guiding the placement of medical devices, such as catheters and stents.

To help identify a specific area of the body on an image, a contrast medium like barium or iodine may be given to patients undergoing certain types of X-rays. Contrast mediums may be swallowed or given as an injection or as an enema.

An X-ray exam is quick and painless. In low doses, X-rays may be used to capture images of structures inside the body to detect and stage a tumor. Radiation exposure from an X-ray for imaging is low, and research suggests the benefits far outweigh the risks. In higher doses, X-rays may be used in radiation therapy to help destroy cancerous cells in the body.

Chest X-ray

A chest X-ray uses high-energy electromagnetic radiation to take pictures of the chest, lungs, heart, larger arteries, ribs and diaphragm. Even small structures, such as blood vessels, appear on a chest X-ray. The image of the chest appears on a film called a radiograph, which shows structures inside the body as light or dark, depending on absorption rates of the different tissues. Dense materials, such as bone, are white, while fat and muscle appear as varying shades of gray. The lungs appear dark because they are filled with air.

Chest X-rays may be used to diagnose, stage and treat lung cancer. In low doses, X-rays may be used to construct images of structures inside the body to detect and stage a tumor. In higher doses, X-rays may be used in radiation therapy to help destroy cancerous cells in the body.

Chest X-rays also may be performed on patients with tuberculosis or other diseases of the chest or lungs, or on patients with one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Chronic cough
  • Chest injury
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty breathing

Doctors use chest X-rays to help diagnose pneumonia, heart failure and lung tissue scarring, as well as lung cancer. Chest X-rays help doctors determine how well treatments are working and are often performed before surgery so doctors are able to see the structures in the chest in advance.