A type of radiation that is used to create images of the inside of the body. The various tissues throughout the body absorb different amounts of radiation, creating images that range from black to different shades of gray to white. For example, bones appear white on x-rays because they absorb the most x-rays; fat and other soft tissues absorb less, creating various shades of gray; air absorbs the least, so the lungs appear black. X-ray imaging can be used to detect a wide variety of problems, including broken bones, pneumonia, dental cavities, and cancer. X-rays of the joints can be used to detect arthritis, and x-rays taken over the course of years can help a doctor determine whether a person’s arthritis is worsening.

Some people are concerned about radiation exposure during x-ray procedures, but the exposure is so small that it presents only minimal risk. However, if you’re pregnant or suspect that you might be pregnant, be sure to alert your doctor before undergoing an x-ray. The doctor may opt to use a different imaging technique, such as ultrasound.

Robert S. Dinsmoor is a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.

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