A radiograph is an image made by the energetic type of electromagnetic radiation most of us call X-rays. We use X-rays in dentistry to take pictures of things we can’t see by the light of our lamps, no matter how we crane our necks and wiggle our little mirrors.

Unlike visible light rays, X-rays can pass through soft materials like your cheeks and gums. They “light up” denser structures, such as your teeth and jawbone. We can see the tooth roots, spot cavities, and check out the bony areas around your teeth. We can identify abscesses, cysts, and even tumors.

We do dental X-rays for patients of all ages, but radiography is particularly useful in evaluating children. We can see the baby teeth, and later the permanent teeth before they erupt and become visible to the eye. We can determine whether the child has missing teeth, extra teeth, or teeth likely to erupt out of position. Early identification of the need for dental or orthodontic intervention is a leg up for better outcomes and fewer complications.

Many parents are concerned about their kids’ exposure to radiation. After all, the dental assistant drapes a lead smock on the patient and then hides in another room. Some people take this as a sign there’s something dangerous about dental radiography.

X-ray images used to be made on film but now it’s all digital and this has reduced radiation exposure by as much as 90%. Four typical bitewing dental X-rays expose a child to about the same amount of radiation as he or she gets every day from the sun and other normal sources at home, at play outdoors, and at school. Since dental assistants radiograph up to 15 patients every day, it makes sense for them to take some distance. The lead smocks are a carryover from the days of film.

Concern about radiation is perfectly legitimate, especially with regard to children since total lifetime exposure is an issue. If you have any doubts or questions about the risks and benefits you should discuss these with your dentist before consenting to radiography for your child.

Dental radiography is an essential tool of the modern pediatric dentist. It’s changed everything.  About 50% of cavities are spotted in X-ray images nowadays. Before X-rays came into use, these would have gone undetected until they became bigger or had progressed to infections.

It’s a very good thing that dental radiography is in the picture.

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