Dental X-rays: Why do I need them?

X-rays play a big part in keeping your teeth and gums healthy. A dentist tells us how

Dental X-rays: Why do I need them?

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Do you really need dental X-rays? Yes and no. At times, they can provide your dentist with invaluable information that will help the health and treatment of your teeth. But that doesn’t mean every person needs a complete X-ray series every time they visit the dentist. Read on to find out how often you should be having X-rays of your mouth and teeth.

Why X-rays?

X-rays, also known as radiographs, capture images of the parts of your mouth your dentist can’t see. That’s because hard tissues like bones and teeth absorb more radiation than softer gum and cheek tissues, creating a picture that clearly shows differences between these types of tissue. What does all that mean? Your dentist can use X-ray technology to uncover the deepest, darkest secrets of your mouth ‘ decay, gum disease, infection, tooth cracks, bone loss and other problems that aren’t visible to the eye.

‘Eighty percent of decay occurs between the teeth, and you can’t see between the teeth,’ says Dr. Bruce Ward, an experienced dentist in North Vancouver. ‘If you just do a visual exam, you miss 80 percent of potential decay.’ An X-ray can also show what’s under a tooth crown, for example. Other X-rays are used to examine the tooth root, or the jaw and supporting structures.

Who should have them?

If you’ve just changed dentists, a fresh set of X-rays will give your new practitioner a complete picture of your teeth and gums. It will also make future changes easier to spot because you’ll have the initial set for comparison. But you may not need X-rays every time you have a checkup, especially if you don’t tend to have many cavities.

Kids, on the other hand, have different oral care needs: They have thinner tooth enamel than adults, their jaws are still growing and their teeth are still developing. They may need more frequent X-rays than their parents, especially if they have a history of cavities. ‘If you miss a series of X-rays on a child with a high decay rate, you’re going to end up with some serious problems,’ says Dr. Ward.

How often should you have dental X-rays?

Your dentist will make a recommendation based on your oral health, whether that turns out to be twice a year or every two years. Some patients resist X-rays even when their dentist suggests them, says Dr. Ward. But that can lead to trouble. ‘Every once in a while there’s a huge problem that we could have fixed five years ago while it was small, if we’d taken an X-ray.’

Are they safe?

Experts will tell you: A dental X-ray is far from dangerous. The amount of radiation you’re exposed to in full mouth X-ray series is only about 1/23 of the radiation you’re already getting from natural sources each year. And with new digital X-ray technology that replaces the old film method, the radiation is reduced further.

In fact, not getting X-rays can be riskier. If your preschooler has a cavity, odds are high that there are several other unseen cavities between his or her teeth, says Dr. Ward, and you need an X-ray to track them down. If you’re pregnant and have a dental infection, failure to diagnose and treat it could be more dangerous for your baby than the X-ray itself.

Even though the level of radiation is low, precautions are taken to minimize your exposure. The X-ray machine focuses the radiation only on your mouth, and you can wear a lead apron and collar to protect other parts of your body. Your dentist and his or her staff have been thoroughly trained in taking X-rays, and the equipment itself is inspected regularly.

If your dentist recommends an X-ray of your mouth, feel assured it will safeguard your health, not threaten it. Adds Dr. Ward: ‘The benefit outweighs the low risk.’

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