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Why take regular dental x-rays?

I’ve received quite a bit of reader feedback about my posts about dental x-rays. A lot of people have a lot of strongly held beliefs about x-rays, how harmful they are and how dentists overuse them. One reader recently wrote me an email on the topic:

“Hi Alan,
First I would like to say, that no amount of radiation is safe..
No one has done long term studies to tell us what is happening to patients being x rayed… Every six months to a year..
We know what happened in 3 mile island, Chernobyl, Hiroshima, sodium reactor disaster in Chatsworth California and many others…
We see thousands of patients coming in to hospitals with brain tumors, thyroid tumors , acoustic neuromas.
I’m not implying there all related to dental x rays, I’m just using common sense. Radiation near these vital areas don’t mix..
We must change the way we view radiation!!!
It’s not safe.. It’s very dangerous!!”

The reader believes that no radiation is safe. He compares radiation from nuclear blasts and meltdowns (Hiroshima and Chernobyl) to the radiation one is exposed to at the dental office. He further goes on to imply that dentists overuse x-rays and that we should only use them when a patient is having a problem.

“I’m my opinion, dentist are using too much radiation and don’t care if patients get cancer or tumors.
The central nervous system, thyroid, pituitary, parotid glands are extremely too close!
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to the dentist
( I go every six months ) and he or she want x rays
I understand dentists have a duty, to make sure there is no bone decay or obscured cavities, but we definitely need a more relaxed approach. In diagnostic radiology we only take x rays when patient has a problem, we don’t just take to try and find something….”

I run into this argument often. In fact, much of radiology (medical or dental) is about taking diagnostic radiographs in patients with risk factors to “try and find something.” How about mammograms? Bone density scans? Medicine does use x-ray imaging as a diagnostic test all the time, even before “problems” arise.

“Nothing to see here. Just minding my own business…”

I recently was examining a patient during their recall appointment. My attention was focused on a restoration that had broken. The tooth right next to it didn’t appear to have any problems at first glance. It appeared innocent, but it was hiding an insidious secret. Once I reviewed the x-ray images that had been made I could see a cavity hiding in between the teeth. And it wasn’t a little one! It was pretty decent sized and needed attention, even though the patient didn’t complain of any pain or trouble! Luckily, the patient had made an appointment to deal with the broken tooth next door that very day and we were able to address this insidious hiding cavity.

“No x-rays, please.”

The reason we take dental x-rays is to help us see things that we can’t see with our eyes. Patients with low risk (e.g.–have never had a cavity, haven’t had a cavity over a period of years, good oral hygiene) don’t need them as often. This particular patient had a lot of risk factors, including recent cavities and many previous fillings, crowns and root canals. So we take regular x-rays on her.

So, we gave the patient appropriate anesthesia, placed a rubber dam and opened up the tooth. I just so happened to take some video of the procedure, so you can see what a hidden cavity looks like from a “dentist’s eye view.”

This innocent looking tooth was hiding a whopper of a cavity! The x-rays helped me find the hidden cavity and probably spared the patient a painful toothache and root canal treatment. A small dose of x-ray radiation saved this patient a lot of trouble. Dentists don’t take x-rays for fun. We use them as tools to show us parts of your teeth that we cannot see directly with our eyes.

By the way…there was a happy ending to this story! I cleaned out the decay that we found and was able to place a bonded filling in both teeth!

Healthy skepticism about radiation is quite reasonable, but a small dose of radiation can yield big benefits to patients without causing harm. If you have concerns, talk to your dentist. And maybe don’t believe everything you read!

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If you’re looking for a dentist in Saginaw, we’re always happy to accept new patients! You can request an appointment online or call the office at (989) 799-9133. And, as always, you can email me at alan@meadfamilydental.com. I always answer my own emails!