Image of a human chest X-ray

When might I need an X-ray?

Confused by all the different types of imaging out there? We get it. There appears to be an endless list of devices that can take a picture of our insides, like x-ray or MRI. This is because our body is made up of different materials, and the different materials show up differently on certain imaging types.


Types of imaging


There are many types of imaging, below is a list of commonly used types. You may be familiar with some of these already if you have ever injured yourself:

  • X-ray
  • Ultrasound
  • CT scan (or Computed Tomography)
  • MRI scan (or Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
  • PET scan (or Positron-Emission Tomography)
  • DEXA scan(or Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry – i.e. bone density scan)


But today, we’re going to focus on the most common – the x-ray.


What is an X-ray?


Nearly everyone on the planet will know what an x-ray is by the time they are 5 years old. And a large percentage of those will have had one done on them by too. X-ray imaging was one of the first types of imaging, discovered back in the late 1800s. X-rays work using electromagnetic radiation (don’t worry too much about the science) to create a picture of the tissues deep inside us. This allows us to see if there is a problem under the skin that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.


X-rays are a simple, cheap and a widely available imaging type. Although each image taken uses a small dose of radiation, it is a relatively safe form if imaging to use for most people.




What are x-rays used for?


The most common use of x-ray imaging is to diagnose a problem with the skeleton. If you were to come off on the worse side of a 50/50 tackle in a football or rugby game, and it was suspected you had broken a leg bone, the first port of call would be an x-ray. Fractures are one of the number one reasons an x-ray would be used in a hospital or other imaging clinic. X-rays show excellent detail in bone tissue, so are perfect to see the fracture that has caused your complete bone to become two (or more) separate pieces.


Because they show such good detail of our bone tissues, an x-ray is also the go-to imaging type if we need to have a look at the state of a joint in the body. If someone had terrible knee pain for years that was caused by degeneration of the joint surfaces, and it hadn’t responded to osteopathic (or any other form of) treatment, then a knee specialist may decide to take a look at an x-ray of the knee joint to see the severity of damage. The information gathered from this image could then be used to help decide whether the patient may require a joint replacement. The knee is just one example where it can be used to look at a joint – it can be used all over the body.


Other interesting uses


You may not know this, but x-rays can also be used to help diagnose problems in the lungs and the digestive system. Chest x-rays will have been extremely helpful recently in diagnosing the location and severity of pneumonia in COVID-19 patients.


If your doctor suspects a problem in the digestive system, like a blockage or splitting of the intestines, then an abdominal x-ray is a quick and easy way to assess this issue. Has your child ever swallowed something they shouldn’t have? Like a coin or other metal object? The hospital can use x-rays to help with such a problem, even if the outcome is to wait for the object to pass through the system on its own!


We hope this was a helpful lesson on what x-rays can be used for. Stay tuned in future to find out about other types of imaging and their uses. Hopefully you’ll never need them!


Stay safe everyone.


  1. Inside Radiology. 2017. Plain radiograph/X-ray. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 06 Jul 2020]
  2. org. 2020. Bone Densitometry (DEXA, DXA). [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 06 Jul 2020]
  3. 2018. Medical Imaging Types and Modalities. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 06 Jul 2020]
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