What Are Digital X-Rays? Are They Safer Than Film X-Rays?

Panoramic x-ray of mouth missing a tooth

Dental x-rays are an important tool for dentists to track your oral health and identify potential issues, like the spreading of gum disease. But many patients have concerns in regards to the technology and dental radiation safety.  Questions like “is radiation from x-rays dangerous” or “what are digital x-rays?” are very common among patients.

We’ll answer some of your questions and help shed light on this standard practice in dentistry to keep your mouth healthy and happy.

Is X-Ray Radiation Dangerous?

Before we dive into the types of x-rays, let’s talk about the most common question when it comes to getting x-rays. Yes, it’s true that high doses of radiation are a cause for concern, and it’s also true that x-rays cause radiation exposure. However, the extremely low dose of radiation falls well under any risk level and is safe for all ages from adults to children. The only exception to this is women who are pregnant, as the radiation is not considered safe for the developing baby.

The reality is that the average person is exposed to between 360 to 620 millirems (a unit of radiation dosage) per year without much concern, primarily from nature. This comes from various sources such as radon in the air, food with trace amounts of radiation, and even high-altitude flight! By comparison, a typical dental x-ray only exposes you to about 2-3 millirems, which is definitely not cause for you to worry.

Typically, you will only need to be x-rayed on an as-needed basis. Regular dental cleanings, which are key to proper preventative care for your oral health, often include a digital x-ray if your current x-rays are outdated or if we see a cause for concern. Even if you needed x-rays every 6 months for your dental health visit, the radiation would be negligible!

X-Rays: From Film to Digital

Dental x-rays have traditionally been performed using film, and this system has been in use for decades. Did you know that x-ray technology was originally discovered in 1895? If you’re familiar with older film photography, the process has some similarities, particularly in the act of developing the final photograph, which can be a time-consuming process.

And since you’re familiar with film photography, you can probably guess what happened next: digital came along. The shift from film x-rays to digital x-rays brought with it a lot of benefits, for both the patient and the dentist!

  • Instant results. Digital x-rays are viewable within seconds, versus the time it can take to develop results from a traditional film x-ray.
  • Significantly lower radiation exposure. Digital x-rays can result in up to 70-80% lower doses of radiation versus film. Remember, even film x-rays are safe, so this significant decrease is great news for anyone still worried about the effects of radiation exposure.
  • Easier to examine. Digital photography is easy to pull up on a large screen, zoom in, and even adjust. Sometimes shifts in brightness or contrast can help your dental health professional identify underlying issues that would not be feasible with film-based x-rays.
  • Easier to archive. Digital records are far easier to access and backup. It’s much less likely to lose older x-rays, which can reduce the frequency you need x-rayed and makes it easier for dentists to compare your x-rays over time.
  • Environmentally-friendly. Digital x-rays don’t require using chemicals for development or film, so they can be completed with fewer materials and waste.

Ultimately, digital x-rays offer significant improvements over film-based x-rays. That’s not to say film x-rays have lost their place, though. You’re just as likely to find film x-ray machines as you are to find digital ones at the dentist. Digital offers a lot of convenience, but film x-ray machines still do their job just fine!

Why Do Dentists Need X-Rays At All?

When we think of x-rays, we might often think of unique situations like a broken bone. It’s obvious to understand the benefits of x-ray technology for these cases – after all, it’s not prudent for a doctor to try and see your bones directly! Since you likely aren’t breaking bones twice a year, you may go several years without ever needing a medical x-ray from your primary doctor or a specialist.

However, dentistry is unique. The first reason dentists need x-rays is due to the difficulties of accessing your teeth directly. Unlike examining a broken arm or evaluating a rash, dentists need to see what’s happening with a part of your body that’s technically on the inside. Working in a cramped space like a person’s mouth doesn’t offer a great range of visibility! And while dentists use several tools (and a great deal of training) to make the most of manual examinations, x-rays are a critical tool to fill in the gaps and see what’s happening where their tools and eyes will never be able to see.

Additionally, while we’re largely concerned with the look and function of our external teeth, the reality is that they go much deeper. Your teeth are anchored deep beneath the gums, where a dentist simply cannot see them. Without x-rays, a significant portion of your teeth would be impossible to evaluate until potential risks rise above the surface. In many cases, damage that severe is already too far gone to fix. But when the signs are caught early through x-rays, there’s ample time to diagnose and treat the issue.

What Can Dentists Use X-Rays to Discover?

The information provided from just a single x-ray can help your dentist significantly! Many of the most common problems you might face in your dental health can be identified earlier through x-ray technology, like:

Cavities – Even if you’re a great brusher, cavities can form in areas your toothbrush can’t reach and your eyes can’t see. X-rays are fantastic at locating cavities, or decay that will soon turn into a cavity, in places even your dentist can’t directl see.

Bone Loss – Bone loss in your jaw is something that happens to everyone but can be more dramatic for some patients. The results of unchecked bone loss can become as severe as losing many of your teeth! X-rays help dentists identify areas of your jaw that appear to be suffering from exacerbated loss.

Tooth Positioning – Dentists and orthodontists rely on x-rays to get a better understanding of how your teeth are positioned beneath the surface. This information is critical for preparing you or your child for potential orthodontic treatment.

Abscess – Infections in your mouth are dangerous because they can be hidden and their proximity to the “danger zone” of your brain. The earlier an abscess or infection is caught, the easier it is to deal with. X-rays can spot infections under the root, even when they’re not visible to direct examination.

Tumors – Tumors that grow beneath the surface of your mouth won’t be identifiable without x-rays.

What Are Panoramic X-Rays?

Panoramic x-rays, also known as panoramic radiography, are a specific type of x-ray that is done entirely outside of the mouth. While many patient x-rays are designed to help identify cavities and other conditions in the mouth, sometimes it’s necessary to take a larger image of the entire mouth at once with a panoramic x-ray. This is used to spot problems such as bone abnormalities, issues with tooth positioning, or oral cancer.

In addition to offering your dentist a full picture of your mouth at once, panoramic x-rays come with a host of benefits. For one, the machines for these types of x-rays are much less invasive. They do not require the patient to bite down on anything, nor do they require multiple x-rays, allowing them to be completed quickly. Panoramic x-rays are also good for children for the same reason, as all they’re required to do is remain still for just a few seconds. Radiation dosage can be lower as well, since these types of x-rays are done once instead of needing multiple angles.

What Are Some Other Types of X-Rays?

In addition to panoramic x-rays, dentists use several other x-rays depending on your needs. The goal of using a variety of x-rays instead of one catch-all type is to both focus in on your chief complaint (or a concern your dentist noticed during their exam) along with reducing the overall radiation, as miniscule as it may be, that you’re exposed to. Here are some common types of x-rays you might hear about at the dentist:

Bitewing – A bitewing x-ray, as the name implies, involves you biting down on a piece of unique paper to bring your teeth together. You’ll often hear about bitewings used when your dentist is looking for cavities, as they’re excellent at revealing damage happening between your teeth!

Periapical – Your teeth go much deeper than just into the gum, and that’s where periapical x-rays help. These are used to get a full picture for a specific section of teeth from top to deep, deep bottom.

Occlusal – Understanding how your teeth are placed and formed in your mouth is important, which is why dentists use occlusal x-rays. They can be used to get a full picture of an arch section of your teeth, letting them get a unique view on how they’re positioned.


Contact Walbridge Dental

X-rays are an important part of keeping your smile healthy! From routine cleaning and exams to advanced restorative treatments to oral cancer detection, the professionals at Walbridge Dental provide complete family dental care to families in the Millbury community. Contact us online to set up an appointment now or call us at 419-836-1033.

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