Everything You Need To Know About Dental X-Rays

Dr. Christopher Li Etobicoke - Li Family Dental

By Dr. Christopher Li

March 29, 2024

dental care, dental checkup, dental x-rays, oral cancer screening, preventative care

Dental x-rays play a vital role in preventative dental treatment. However, some patients might worry about how safe they are, as exposure to radiation can increase the risk of cancer. Here, we share everything you need to know about dental x-rays to help set your mind at ease. 

What Are Dental X-Rays?

Dental professional analyzing a panoramic dental x-ray on a monitor.

Dental x-rays are a form of “radiography” to take internal images of your teeth and jaw. We use dental oral x-rays to examine your tooth structure and spot issues affecting your teeth and bone. Because we can’t see what lies below and between your teeth and gums, taking dental x-rays every few years offers valuable insights into diseases and other issues that impact your oral health.

It also helps us identify issues in children’s dental care, such as the number of permanent teeth, tooth size and tooth position, to proactively offer treatment to help improve alignment, bite, and overall dental health. 

Do Dental X-Rays Hurt?

Dentist preparing to take a dental x-ray of a female patient.

Most people do not find x-rays hurt, although some people who are more sensitive can experience discomfort. What is more common is gagging if you have a strong gag reflex. Smaller mouths can also make taking dental x-rays slightly uncomfortable. However, actual pain is exceedingly rare when you’re getting dental x-rays. 

Different Types Of Dental X-Rays And Their Uses

There are two main categories of dental x-rays that each include various types and uses:

  1. Intraoral x-rays are taken inside the mouth
  2. Extraoral x-rays are taken outside of the mouth

Today, most dental offices use technology and digital x-rays to improve your care. Your dentist will typically recommend intraoral x-rays for checkups, monitoring, and to confirm a diagnosis, and only request extraoral x-rays for specific situations and concerns.

Here is a breakdown of the various types of x-rays and their uses:

Intraoral X-Rays

intraoral-x-rays

Intraoral x-rays include the following:

  • Bitewing X-Rays: Bitewings show the upper and lower teeth and are used to detect decay between your teeth or track changes just below the gum line.
  • Periapical X-Rays: Periapicals show the entire tooth, from the crown to the root tip and can help detect decay, gum disease, bone loss, and abnormalities of the surrounding bone.
  • Occlusal X-Rays: Occlusals are used to detect issues in the floor or roof of your mouth and are commonly used when your dentist suspects you have issues with your root, have impacted wisdom teeth, or when your tooth has been fractured. However, they can also detect cysts, abscesses, and jaw fractures and be used to evaluate tooth development in children.

Extraoral X-Rays

Panoramic dental x-ray showing a full set of adult teeth.

Extraoral x-rays include:

  • Panoramic X-Rays: Panoramic x-rays circle your head to take a single image of the structures in your mouth, including your upper and lower teeth, jaw joints, nerves, sinuses, and supporting bone. They are used to examine existing oral health issues.
  • Cephalometric X-Rays: Cephalometric x-rays are taken from the side of the head to show the location of your teeth positioned in your jaw. Orthodontists use them to plan treatments required to correct bite issues.
  • Cone Beam CT Scan: This is a computed tomography that scans your head to capture 3D dental x-rays of your teeth, jaws, joints, nerves, and sinuses. These are more commonly used in medical settings to detect tumours or facial fractures. However, dental surgeons also use them to determine the height, width, and location of your jawbone for procedures such as dental implants. 

Are Dental X-Rays Safe?

A smiling patient wearing a lead apron ready for a dental x-ray.

The radiation risk from a dental oral x-ray treatment is no riskier than the exposure from using things like a TV, smartphone, or computer. You might not realize you’re also exposed to mild radiation from building materials such as granite countertops or ceramic tiles, as well as naturally occurring radiation from the sun, stars, and the makeup of the planet. 

Are There Risks Of Dental Oral X-Rays Treatment?

Yes, the main concern for dental x-ray treatment is exposure to radiation that increases the risk of cancer. However, that risk only exists when you are exposed to extremely large doses. That is why we limit the number of dental x-ray treatments to avoid the risks. 

How Many Dental Oral X-Rays Are Too Many?

Dentist showing a dental x-ray to an elderly patient in the examination room.

Having healthy teeth and gums only requires x-rays every one to two years or so. That’s why it’s so important to follow a strict oral health regime. If you suffer from gum disease, decay, or other oral health issues, your dentist will need to take x-rays more frequently. This ensures you receive proper treatment and track the progression of existing conditions.

Can I Refuse Dental X-Rays?

You have the right to refuse oral x-rays or request less frequent x-rays. However, it is always best to discuss your concerns with your dentist so you can make an informed decision to maintain optimum oral health. 

What Can Dental X-Rays Detect?

Dental professional examining a dental x-ray film.

Dental x-rays are used as part of your preventative care as well as to confirm the diagnosis of suspected oral health issues, including:

  • Cavities between teeth your dentist can’t see
  • Decay developing below existing fillings
  • Bone loss in your jaw
  • Infection
  • Damage to restorations, such as gaps or loosening
  • The position of unerupted or impacted teeth
  • Abscessed infection in your tooth root or between your gums and your tooth
  • Cysts
  • Tumours
  • Dental emergencies

X-rays are also required to confirm viable treatments such as:

And finally, they are used to check healing after procedures such as bone grafts or root canals. 

Can A Dental X-Ray Show Cancer?

Dental professional analyzing a patient's x-ray images on a computer monitor.

Yes, as mentioned above, dental x-rays can show signs of tumours that indicate some types of oral cancers. They also show signs of cancer in your jawbone or when existing cancers have spread. However, cancer screenings are required to detect all types of mouth cancers that don’t require x-rays. We perform cancer screenings at all your dental checkups to catch cancer early to ensure you receive proper treatment right away.

Can I Have Dental X-Rays While Pregnant?

Although it is now believed that x-rays pose little to no risk to a fetus, dentists prefer to avoid taking x-rays while pregnant unless absolutely necessary.  

Do Dental Benefits Cover Dental X-Rays?

Dentist showing a patient her dental images on a computer screen during a consultation.

While it depends on the individual dental plan, in most cases, the average dental insurance covers dental x-rays. This is because x-rays play an essential role in preventative dental care to address issues before they progress and require more expensive treatments. However, in most cases, coverage is limited in frequency and to a specific type of dental x-rays.

As you can see, dental x-rays play a significant role in your dental care. They also present no more risk than the typical tiny amounts of radiation you are exposed to when using your cell phone and other handheld devices.

Give us a call at 416-232-2033 or request an appointment by clicking here.

Dr. Christopher Li

About the author

Doctor Christopher Li, DDS
Dr. Chris, as he is affectionately known, is a licensed dentist with over 20 years experience. His caring personality makes even the most tentative person at ease. Patients are constantly commenting about how Dr. Chris is incredible at delivering pain-free freezing, and how he has an amazing chair-side manner.  Dr. Chris loves sharing information with his patients and everyone who has teeth about how to care for their teeth, avoid tooth decay, and the treatments available to help them overcome their tooth pain or other dental issues so they can enjoy life and food to its fullest!

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