Merck Manual

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Quick Facts

Plain X-Rays


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Oct 2019| Content last modified Oct 2019
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What is a plain x-ray?

A plain x-ray is an imaging test that takes a picture of the inside of your body. It uses a low dose of x-ray radiation. X-rays show body parts according to how dense (solid) they are.

  • Doctors usually use plain x-rays to find problems in solid body parts like your bones

  • Plain x-rays aren't as good as other imaging tests for showing soft body parts like muscles, ligaments, and internal organs

  • Doctors can combine x-rays to create motion pictures that show a body part moving, such as your heart beating

Why would I need an x-ray?

Doctors use x-rays to check for problems such as:

What happens during an x-ray?

Before the x-ray

You usually don't need to do anything before an x-ray.

During the x-ray

  • You’ll hold very still as the x-ray machine takes each picture

  • Each x-ray will only last for a few seconds

  • You usually need several x-rays of each body part so doctors can see pictures from different angles

After the x-ray

You can go back to your usual activities.

What are the risks of having x-rays?

The main risk in getting an x-ray is being exposed to radiation. Doctors try to limit the total amount of radiation you get over your lifetime. Getting too much radiation can raise your chance of getting cancer.

  • Most plain x-rays expose you to a very small amount of radiation

  • If you’re pregnant or could be pregnant, doctors will shield your belly from the radiation

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