Regular x-rays (radiographs) are very important because while your dentist can detect some types of tooth decay simply by looking into a patient’s mouth, not all decay is visible during a routine oral examination. X-ray images can reveal areas of decay inside the tooth and below the gum line. But x-rays taken regularly, by your dentist can monitor the condition of your teeth in order to detect any changes and track their progression over a period of time. These images provide invaluable information to dental practitioners and are an essential part of your oral exam.

X-rays are also important for early detection of decay between the teeth. The place where the teeth come in contact with each other is the most delicate area. It is also the most decay prone area in the mouth. Most of the time, bacteria and other microbes are not visible and therefore cannot be easily detected. In addition, root abscesses, cysts, unerupted teeth, broken root fragments and impacted teeth can typically only be determined by x-rays since these abnormalities are normally hidden from view. Detecting a problem early, rather than treating it after it has become painful, saves patients time, effort and expense. Your dentist is the best judge of when and how often x-rays should be taken. Each patient has different health needs, so the frequency of x-ray exams should be individualized, and to some extent, determined by a patient’s age, disease risks and symptoms.

X-rays are an essential part of a child’s dental care as well. In young children who still have their baby teeth, x-rays can show the dentist the positions of the permanent teeth whether they’re oriented properly, and whether there will be enough room for them to erupt normally. Children’s x-rays are also important because they detect interproximal (between the teeth) caries along with the tooth position.

There are two main types of dental x-rays: intraoral (meaning the x-ray film is inside the mouth) and
extraoral (meaning the x-ray film is outside the mouth). describes various types of the most commonly ordered x-rays (see below).

Intraoral X-rays are the most common type of dental x-ray taken. These x-rays provide a lot of detail and allow your dentist to find cavities, check the health of the root and bone surrounding the tooth, check the status of developing teeth, and monitor the general health of your teeth and jawbone.

Extraoral X-rays show teeth, but their main focus is the jaw and skull. These x-rays do not provide the detail found with intraoral x-rays and therefore are not used for detecting cavities or for identifying problems with individual teeth. Instead, extraoral x-rays are used to look for impacted teeth, monitor growth and development of the jaws in relation to the teeth, and to identify potential problems between teeth and jaws and the temporomandibular joint.

While some patients may worry about the safety of x-rays and associated radiation exposure, most experts agree that dental x-rays involve radiation levels similar to those encountered from frequent airline travel and certain home appliances and are safe for most patients. Most modern dental offices have safeguards to help minimize any potential risk.

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