By far, the biggest questions we get in the dental chair are related to x-rays. “How safe are x-rays?”, or, “Do I really need them?” come up a lot. The answer is easy and it isn’t at the same time.
First, we must emphasize how much information x-rays give us that we couldn’t get any other way. To do a comprehensive dental exam, radiographs are integral. A dental intra-oral radiograph helps us check for oral cancer, bone cancer, periodontal disease, dental abscesses, dental decay, and other pathology that likely may not be visible just by looking in your mouth. Imagine asking your trusted auto mechanic to do a comprehensive check of your car’s mechanical systems but forbidding him from opening the hood. He would not be able to give you the complete information on your car’s condition to help you save money in the long run and avoid an inconvenient mechanical breakdown. Asking us to do an exam without x-rays is similar. It’s very risky refusing x-rays altogether.
That being said, we are also very concerned about limiting your exposure to x-rays. When it comes to radiation exposure (ionizing-level), which x-rays are part of, the principle at work should be ‘less is more.’ The federal government, based on scientific research, has set guidelines for how much exposure is too much, but the goal ideally should be to limit the exposure to as little as possible. An acronym, ALARA, means As Low As Reasonably Attainable, is used to show that medical professionals should be looking for ways to limit x-ray exposure.
Luckily, many advances in recent years have made exposure lower than ever. Digital x-rays have reduced the exposure levels greatly– in our office, our exposure levels are 17% what they were just a few years ago when we used film radiography. Also, technical advances, such as positioning devices for the x-ray source have reduced the number of retakes needed. We look at your risk factors for oral disease to determine how many x-rays are necessary. Someone who hasn’t had any decay for more than three years, for example, wouldn’t necessarily need x-rays every year, (unless he or she had some other disease being monitored). All-in-all, the exposure to x-rays you receive today is much lower than what you received even ten years ago.
So, the short answer is that we feel having dental x-rays taken at least every one to two years or so is much safer than choosing to not have them taken at all. We hope in the future, technology will advance to the point where we do not need to use x-rays in dentistry. Until then, x-rays are the best way of screening for many types of oral disease; And although we limit their use, we will not recommend refraining from having them altogether at dental visits.