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What do X-rays involve, why are they important, and what are their risks?

X-rays are among the most familiar procedures in medical settings, even having a certain prominence in popular culture. In many ways, that should not be so surprising; after all, the notion of being able to produce images of bones and organs inside the body, simply by firing radiation at the patient, has long captured the imagination.

What’s more, X-rays have been in use for well over a century. It is the German mechanical engineer and physicist, Wilhelm Röntgen (1845-1923), who is credited with having been the first person to describe X-rays. His discovery that X-rays could assist with the visualisation of bones, was followed just weeks later with their first use in a medical setting.

The first person to be subject to an X-ray for medical purposes was young Eddie McCarthy of Hanover, this procedure being carried out when he fractured his left wrist as a result of falling while skating on the Connecticut River.

What does an X-ray involve?

X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation that is capable of penetrating or passing through the human body. The person receiving the X-ray procedure cannot see his radiation, and nor can it be seen by the naked eye.

It is the X-rays’ passage through the body that enables the creation of shadow-like images of bones and some organs. This, in turn, helps to reveal potential signs of disease and injury.

The fact that the rate at which the energy from X-rays is absorbed varies in different parts of the body, allows for the production of accurate images by a detector situated on the other side of the body.

Clear white areas on the image indicate denser parts of the body, such as bone. Meanwhile, darker areas signify softer parts, such as the heart and lungs, that the X-rays are able to pass through more easily.

Does the X-ray procedure come with risks to health?

One frequent matter of concern about X-rays, has been the fact that the body is exposed to radiation during the procedure (this, of course, being precisely how X-rays work).

Although it is undeniable that such radiation exposure occurs when someone undergoes an X-ray, it is also important to acknowledge the risks in a proportionate way. Yes, a link has been found between X-ray exposure and a heightened risk of developing cancer in later life; this risk, however, is believed to be very small.

To give just one example, an X-ray of chest, limbs, or teeth is equivalent to a few days’ worth of background radiation – the kind of radiation, in other words, that we are all exposed to over the normal course of our everyday lives. Such an X-ray procedure is thought to have a less than 1 in 1,000,000 likelihood of causing cancer.

Although there will be a need to weigh up the benefits and risks of a given patient undergoing an X-ray procedure before this takes place, the advantages of X-rays are thought to far outweigh the scope for negative effects.

In our capacity as a private X-ray clinic in Gibraltar here at GibMed International Hospital, we are well-placed to provide patients with the benefit of general radiography services that involve the use of the latest equipment. This helps to ensure patients are subject to minimal levels of radiation during the procedure.

To learn more about our services and expertise, please feel free to reach out to our team today at the International Commercial Centre (ICC) Building in Casemates Square, Gibraltar.


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