What to Know About a Skull X-Ray

Medically Reviewed by Sanjay Ponkshe on February 23, 2024
3 min read

X-rays use electromagnetic radiation to help doctors see your bones and internal tissues. Getting a skull X-ray is a quick, safe, and painless way to find fractures, tumors, and other problems inside your head or brain. ‌

X-rays are a type of radiography, meaning they use radiation to create images. Energy from the X-ray machine passes through your body onto a detector to create the image, called a radiograph. Some detectors use special plates that work like camera film, and other more modern X-ray detectors create digital images. 

A skull X-ray works by allowing your doctor to see the bones of the skull and other tissues or foreign objects inside your head. Each part of your body absorbs different amounts of radiation. Parts of your body that are more solid, like your bones, look white on a radiograph. Softer areas like your muscles or lungs show up in shades of gray. If you have a broken bone or skull fracture, X-ray radiation will pass through the crack, creating a dark space in the white image of your bone. On a skull X-ray, any tumors will look lighter than the tissue around them because they are more solid.

‌In modern medicine, CT scans and MRIs have largely replaced X-rays for diagnosing injury or disease, but X-rays are still helpful to check for problems with your bones. Your skull has 22 bones — 8 cranial bones that protect your brain and 14 facial bones to make up your face. Your doctor might order an X-ray to look for fractures in those skull bones or to look for calcified areas of your brain. 

Skull X-rays may also help diagnose other health conditions like:

  • Birth defects
  • Pituitary or other brain tumors
  • Some metabolic or endocrine disorders that affect the skull 
  • Foreign objects in the head or brain
  • Sinus problems
  • Infections

For most people, a skull X-ray is very safe. The amount of radiation used for a traditional X-ray can be up to 70 times lower than a comparable CT scan.

Overexposure to radiation, however, can lead to more serious health problems. If you are pregnant or there is a possibility you may be, let your doctor know. While X-ray radiation exposure is considered well within the safe zone, radiation can lead to birth defects. ‌

You will be asked to remove jewelry, hearing aids, and your eyeglasses. You may be asked to wear a gown for the procedure. ‌

During a skull X-ray, you will be positioned between the X-ray machine and the detector. A technician will help you move your head and body to get the clearest image of the affected area. You will put on a lead apron to shield other parts of your body from unnecessary radiation. 

If your X-ray is for a head injury, you may be placed in a neck brace to prevent more harm. 

Results from the X-ray can be seen soon after it is done. A radiographer will look at the pictures and send any findings back to your doctor. Depending on the reason for your skull X-ray, you should be able to return to your daily activities immediately. As with any medical procedure, ask questions and talk to your doctor about your results.