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Reducing Radiation from Medical X-rays

Reducing Radiation from Medical X-rays

One of medicine's most remarkable achievements is the use of X-rays to see inside the body without having a surgeon wield a scalpel.

Before medical X-ray machines were available, people who were in an accident and had serious injuries would often need exploratory surgery to find out what was wrong," says CAPT Thomas Ohlhaber, U.S. Public Health Service, a physicist and deputy director of the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Division of Mammography Quality and Radiation Programs.

"But today, if you're brought to the emergency room with severe injuries, within a few minutes you can be X-rayed, often with a sophisticated computed tomography, or ‘CT,' unit, have your injuries assessed, and be treated quickly before you progress to a much more serious state," says Ohlhaber.

X-rays are used for much more than identifying injuries from accidents. They are used to screen for, diagnose, and treat various medical conditions. X-rays can be used on just about any part of the body—from the head down to the toes—to identify health problems ranging from a broken bone to pneumonia, heart disease, intestinal blockages, and kidney stones. And X-rays cannot only find cancerous tumors, but can often destroy them.

Along with their tremendous value, medical X-rays have a drawback: they expose people to radiation. FDA regulates radiation-emitting products including X-ray machines. But everyone has a critical role in reducing radiation while still getting the maximum benefit from X-ray exams.

What are X-rays?

X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation that can penetrate clothing, body tissue, and internal organs. An X-ray machine sends this radiation through the body. Some of the radiation emerges on the other side of the body, where it exposes film or is absorbed by a digital detector to create an image. And some of it is absorbed in body tissues. It is the radiation absorbed by the body that contributes to the "radiation dose" a patient gets.

Because of their effectiveness in the early detection and treatment of diseases, and their ready access in doctor's offices, clinics, and hospitals, X-rays are used more today and on more people than in the past, according to the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.

  • In the early 1980s, medical X-rays made up about 11 percent of all the radiation exposure to the U.S. population. Current estimates attribute nearly 35 percent of all radiation exposure to medical X-rays. (Nuclear medicine procedures, which use radioactive material to create images of the body, account for about 12 percent of radiation exposure, and natural sources of radiation in the environment that we're exposed to all the time make up approximately 50 percent.)
  • Radiation dose per person from medical X-rays has increased almost 500 percent since 1982.
  • Nearly half of all medical X-ray exposures today come from CT equipment, and radiation doses from CT are higher than other X-ray studies.
    Source: National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements

X-ray Risks

WebMD Public Information from the FDA

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