A Patient's Guide to X-rays of the Spine
What it is: An X-ray is a painless test that uses radioactive beam to
take pictures of bone. The beam is shot through your body onto a special film,
just like a camera.
What the test shows: X-rays are good at showing bone. X-rays will definitely
be helpful if your doctor suspects a fracture of the spine, an infection, or
a tumor. If your doctor suspects that your problem may be from degeneration
of the spine, X-rays can be used to see if there is a decrease in the height
of space between vertebrae, bone spurs, or facet hypertrophy. Sometimes X-rays
are taken while you are in different positions. For example, X-rays may be taken
while you bend forward and another while you straighten your spine. These X-rays
can be compared to see if there is too much movement between vertebrae. This
may help determine if there is segmental instability during flexion and extension
of the spine. The test is called a flexion-extension view of the spine.
What the test does not show: X-rays of the spine do not show the soft
tissues. This means that the test is not very good at showing nerves, discs,
or ligaments. X-rays have been around for over 100 years, so doctors have used
them to try and get as much information as possible about the soft tissues by
looking at the way the bones line up and the way that certain shadows appear
to be out of alignment. Today we have many tests that show the soft tissues
much clearer, so doctors do not have to rely on X-rays to show these things.
How the test is done: During X-rays, you will be asked to lie very still
on a table or stand very still and hold certain positions while pictures are
taken of your spine. It is much like having your photograph taken and is over
What risks the test has: X-rays use radiation, which in large doses
can increase the risks of cancer. The vast majority of patients who get X-rays
will never get enough radiation to worry about cancer. Only patients who must
have multiple X-rays (hundreds) over many years need worry about this risk.
Children and young adults who plan to have children should be protected from
radiation exposure to the testicles and ovaries. The radiation may damage the
sperm and eggs. It is simple to protect the area whenever possible by shielding
it with a lead apron or blanket.
What the test costs: An X-ray of the spine usually has two costs associated
with the test. The first cost is the fee for actually doing the test. This is
called the "technical fee". The second cost is the fee of having a specialist,
such as a radiologist, read and interpret the test. This is called the "professional
fee". You may get two bills for this test: one from the hospital or clinic that
took the X-ray, and one from the specialist who read the test.
Copyright © 2003 DePuy Acromed.
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This page was last updated: July 22, 2013