You know the drill – Your family dentist asks for your approval to take some X-rays, and you agree because you know they help detect dental issues affecting your teeth and gums. But have you ever wondered why they do what they do?

We’ve taken a deep dive to help you understand the different types of X-rays and how valuable they are for ensuring oral health.

X-rays Defined

X-rays are the ultimate preventive dentistry tool. They emit a high energy electromagnetic wave and a shorter wave which photographs through opaque materials, allowing dentists to look beyond what the naked eye can see in a standard oral exam. This enables us to discover and, if necessary, treat any dental issues you may have before they progress. When paired with daily oral hygiene, they help avoid needless pain and extensive dental services and expenses.

What X-rays Do

Instead of asking, “what do X-rays do?” a better question is, “what don’t X-rays do?” Check out this list of what X-rays accomplish for you and your family’s oral health:

  • Highlight decayed areas that aren’t easy to see, including between your teeth and underneath fillings.
  • Uncover changes in the bone, or bone loss, a symptom of gum disease.
  • Help your dentist prepare for Invisalign, dentures, dental implants, and more!
  • Eke out any changes in your root canal and bone related to infection.
  • Reveal infection between the tooth and gum or at the tooth root, also known as an abscess.
  • Assess if your child’s mouth has adequate space to accommodate their incoming teeth.
  • Determine if your child’s baby teeth will be lost in time to make way for their permanent teeth.
  • Verify how their wisdom teeth are developing and check to see if they are impacted and unable to surface through the gums.
  • Detect any cysts, tumors or other abnormal developmental issues.
Dental X-ray Types

Your dentist has three options to choose from when it comes to dental X-rays, Intraoral, Extraoral and digital imaging, each with different specialties and functions.

  • Intraoral simply means they will place the X-ray film inside your mouth. They are the most common form utilized due to the detailed images they provide. They can locate cavities, ascertain if the bones around your teeth, tooth root and jawbone are healthy, and monitor tooth development and overall dental health. Here are the three types:

    • Bite-wing X-rays: This type of X-ray is used to locate any decay or bone density changes. They focus on one area of your mouth, revealing details of upper and lower teeth from the supporting bone to the crown. They also can ensure that a crown fits properly and that fillings are intact and secure.
    • Periapical X-rays: These see the whole tooth, from the crown to the root end where the jaw anchors the tooth, and its neighboring teeth in that portion of the upper or lower jaw. Their function is to unearth any abnormal root and bone structures.
    • Occlusal X-rays: Like a panoramic photo, this Intraoral X-ray depicts the full dental arch to indicate tooth placement and development.
  • Extraoral, wherein the film is outside your mouth, primarily focuses on your jaw and skull. They are ideal for uncovering issues like tooth impaction – when a tooth doesn’t emerge or only comes through partway. They also help keep track of jaw development and how it relates to the teeth. This is essential to avoid TMJ or TMD (temporomandibular joint disorders) and any problems with the facial bones. Here are the multiple types:

    • Cephalometric Projections: These outline the complete side of the head to see how the teeth relate to your jaw and profile, making them essential for creating precise Invisalign treatment plans.
    • CT Scans (Computed tomography): These are 3-D images that reveal interior bone structure. They can identify the presence of tumors and the extent of fractures or evaluate bone for challenging extractions and dental implant placement. This type of X-ray is vital for preventing surgical complications.
    • Panoramic X-rays: These singular X-rays display the whole mouth, including every tooth in your upper and lower jaws, to discover the location of emerging and fully emerged teeth and if there are any impacted teeth or tumors present.
    • Sialography: This type of X-ray is used to highlight the salivary glands to see if there are any blockages or problems like Sjögren’s syndrome. It involves a dye (radiopaque contrast agent) injection to help the X-ray film see this soft tissue not detectable by standard X-rays.
    • Tomograms: These have the ability to display a single “slice” or layer of your mouth, blurring the other structures.
  • Digital X-rays are the latest advancement in X-rays, with the following benefits:

    • No darkroom development is required.
    • Images are immediately sent to a computer for easy viewing, storing or printing.
    • Unlike typical X-rays, this technology utilizes less radiation.
    • Provides results in seconds, enabling us to review the images with patients on the spot.
    • We can enlarge or enhance the images and compare them with previous ones to help pinpoint areas of concern.
    • Can be easily sent electronically to a specialist if needed.
Dental X-ray Frequency

How often you need dental X-rays varies according to your age and dental health.

For pediatric dental care:

  • For children who had decay, X-rays every six months are recommended until all decay is gone.
  • For children without decay presence or risk, X-rays are recommended annually on up to two years.

For pre-teen and teen dental care:

  • For adolescents who had decay, X-rays every six to twelve months are recommended until all decay is gone.
  • Adolescents without decay can get X-rays anywhere from 18 months to 3 years, depending on their oral health.

For adult dental care:

  • For adults who had decay, X-rays every 6 to 12 months are advised until all decay is gone.
  • Patients without decay or other high-risk issues can do X-rays every 18 months on up to every 3 years.

High-risk people require more frequent X-rays. If any of these describe you, be sure to schedule a dental appointment to stay on track:

  • Children with developing teeth and jaws
  • Adults with several fillings and other dental restorations
  • People with periodontal disease
  • Sugar lovers who can’t resist sugary foods and beverages
  • Dry mouth sufferers
  • Smokers
X-ray Safety

As your dentist gets ready to take X-rays and asks you if there is any chance you could be pregnant, you may wonder if X-rays are a good idea.

We are exposed to sources of radiation daily, from the natural rays of the sun and minerals in the soil to household appliances. While high radiation levels can cause damage that can lead to cancer, the dose you receive in an X-ray is incredibly small and considered safe.

However, our dental clinic is committed to only giving X-rays when needed for clinical diagnosis. We pride ourselves on offering caring family dentistry and understand if you are still concerned. That is one of the many reasons we offer digital X-rays. However, when digital X-rays are not applicable, we use the fastest film speed, smallest beam possible, meticulous processing and protective aprons to shield your body and minimize unnecessary exposure.

If you have any questions, we’re happy to review your unique dental history, our recommended frequency and the reasons we believe you need X-rays to ensure your dental care plan meets all of your concerns.