Dental X-Rays 101
What Are Dental X-Rays?
Dental X-rays, or dental X-ray images, are X-ray images that show a person’s teeth and bone structure around the mouth. Dental X-rays are vital to discovering problems with a patient’s teeth, jaw, or gum tissue. Caries, pre-emerged teeth, and bone loss are just a few of the possible dental issues that can be detected efficiently with dental x-rays.
How Do Dental X-Rays Work?
Dental X-rays machines expose specific areas of the mouth and head to low doses of radiation that pass through skin but are absorbed by bone, resulting in radiographs (images) in which teeth look lighter than the gums and soft tissues. Areas of tooth decay and infection look darker in radiographs because they don’t absorb as much of the X-ray.
Film X-Rays Versus Digital X-Rays
Traditionally, dental X-ray equipment used film to capture both intraoral and extraoral images. Today, most X-ray equipment uses a digital sensor to capture images—either a small portable sensor for intraoral imaging or a sensor as part of a fixed panoramic X-ray system for extraoral imaging.
The Advantages of Digital Dental X-Rays versus Film-Based Dental X-Rays
- Digital X-ray images can be viewed immediately after exposure
- Digital X-ray images can be zoomed or enhanced for easier diagnosis
- Digital X-ray equipment exposes patients to much lower radiation levels
- Digital X-ray images can be stored as part of the patient’s electronic file
- Digital X-ray equipment does not require maintaining film development equipment and chemicals
The one disadvantage of digital X-ray imaging is the initial cost of equipment. For dental practitioners who continue to use film equipment but want some of the benefits of digital imaging there are reusable phosphor plates to simplify film development and film scanners to convert finished film into digital files.
Kinds of Dental X-Ray Equipment
Generally, dental X-ray equipment falls into one of two categories:
- Intraoral, which captures via a piece of film, phosphor plate, or sensor placed inside the mouth
- Extraoral, which captures images from outside of the mouth
Intraoral X-Ray Equipment
There are two types of periapical X-ray equipment: periapical, which consists of an X-ray sensor attached to the end of a swing arm mounted to a cabinet, wall, or rolling stand, or handheld X-rays. Handheld X-ray equipment is popular because it is portable, requires a minimum of storage space, and can replace multiple stationary units with a single device.
Periapical X-ray equipment uses intraoral X-rays to produce three types of X-ray images:
- Bitewing, which show upper and lower back teeth and can reveal problems caused by misalignment, infection, gum disease, and bone loss.
- Periapical, which show the entirety of teeth including exposed crowns, the surrounding bone support, and the root structure and can reveal problems below the gum line or in the jaw such as abscesses, impacted teeth, tumors and cysts, bone structure changes, and injury.
- Occlusal, which show the roof or floor of the mouth and can reveal the presence of extra teeth, pre-emergent teeth, jaw fractures, a cleft palate, and foreign objects, as well as abscesses, tumors, cysts, growths, etc.
Extraoral X-Ray Equipment
There are several types of X-ray equipment that capture images from outside of the mouth. Each serve similar purposes, though some are more specialized in their use.
Panoramic X-rays capture a wide view, typically showing all teeth, the entire jaw, temporomandibular joints (TMJ), and nasal cavity. These can reveal most existing or potential dental problems.
Cephalometric (ceph) X-rays are usually taken with a panoramic X-ray machine adapted with a special film or sensor holder mounted on a mechanical arm. These capture a view of the entire oral structure including a side profile of the face and are commonly used for the planning and treatment of orthodontic procedures as well as oral and maxillofacial surgery.
Dental Cone Beam Computed Tomography (CBCT) is a highly specialized type of X-ray machine that produces 3D images of the teeth, bone structure, surrounding tissue, and nerve paths in a single scan. These are most commonly used for procedures in which other kinds of X-ray images would not provide sufficient information such as oral or reconstructive surgery, diagnosing TMJ disorders, dental implant placements, pathology, and evaluations of the nasal cavity, sinuses, nerve pathways, and jaw.
Advancements in dental X-ray technology are driving improved dental treatment and patient experiences. As dentistry is becoming increasingly competitive, the right imaging equipment for your practice is a smart purchase.
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