What dental X-rays reveal about your teeth
Your dentist’s assistant just announced that you’re due for X-rays today — and now you’re wondering why your dentist needs to take pictures of your teeth if they’re going to be digging around in your mouth anyway. Glad you asked. Dental X-rays can reveal quite a bit about what’s going on inside your mouth and how it’s affecting your oral health.
During a dental checkup, your dentist will do a visual exam of your teeth and gums. While they’re poking around inside your mouth, they’ll be looking for any unusual spots, inflammation or decay. They will also look at your dental X-rays for any problems they couldn’t see with their own eyes or feel with their instruments. X-rays can reveal new cavities that are still tiny or signs of tooth decay in hard-to-see areas, such as between your teeth.
“Patients are usually worried about what might be revealed by their dental X-ray,” says Jin Xiao, D.D.S. She’s the director of perinatal oral health at the Eastman Institute for Oral Health at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York. “Patients are generally surprised to see tooth decay under their dental crowns, or decay under their gums.”
Dental X-rays can also show problems like bone loss in the jaw or temporomandibular joint issues. This joint connects your jawbone to your skull. The X-rays help dentists catch problems before they become serious and infections before they spread to other areas of the mouth.
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How many dental X-rays do I need?
Dental X-rays of the upper and lower teeth (bitewings) are the most common images used during a dental exam. They usually include 4 images, which will help the dentist diagnose gum disease and cavities.
To create the X-rays, a dental assistant will fit a plastic device holding X-ray film in various positions in your mouth. Then they’ll step out of the room and push a button to get a picture. Each X-ray takes seconds to complete.
When you see a new dentist, they might take a full set of X-rays. That consists of 14 to 20 different X-rays of all your teeth and the surrounding bone. It helps your new dentist find any problems and plan any treatment needs.
To reduce the number of X-rays you need, you can ask your old dentist to send your existing X-rays to your new dentist. Then your new dentist may not need to take a full set to get up to speed on your oral health.
How often do I need dental X-rays?
How frequently you need to get dental X-rays will vary based on your dental health history and risk level.
Children might need X-rays more often than adults. Kids are more prone to tooth decay, and their dentist may be keeping an eye on how their jaw forms. (If you have insurance through the federal marketplace, 1 of the 10 “essential benefits” covers your kid’s oral care through the age of 19.)
Adults prone to cavities might have X-rays done once every 6 months.
Are dental X-rays safe?
Dental X-rays use low levels of radiation. “A full-mouth dental X-ray, 18 intra-oral films, generates less radiation than daily cosmic radiation,” says Dr. Xiao.
Additionally, your dentist will use tools that limit the amount of radiation you’re exposed to. For extra protection, make sure the dentist or dental assistant puts a leaded apron over your midsection and a thyroid collar over your neck to shield those areas against radiation.
“No single diagnostic X-ray has a significant enough radiation dose to cause adverse effects in a developing embryo or fetus,” says Dr. Xiao. Still, dentists take extra precautions to protect mothers and babies. They might double-apron your belly or use x-ray techniques to get better results the first time (to prevent them from having to retake them).
If you’re pregnant, you’re at an increased risk of gingivitis during pregnancy. Gingivitis is when you have red, swollen gums and tooth decay. So it’s important to keep getting regular dental exams and x-rays while pregnant. Just let the dental staff know you’re pregnant so they can take those extra precautions.
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How can I make dental X-rays less uncomfortable?
It’s common to struggle with holding the X-ray film in place in your mouth, so ask the dental assistant for tips to make it more comfortable, if needed.
“Because gagging is a common thing patients might experience during dental X-rays, experienced dental assistants usually work with patients on relaxation, breathing from their nose and employing distraction methods, such as instructing them to gently move their legs up and down,” says Dr. Xiao.
Don’t be afraid to ask the dental assistant for their best tips. And remember, once you get through the X-rays, you get to leave knowing that you won’t have to do it again for a while.