Every dentist has experienced it before. Patients refuse x-rays because they don’t want to be exposed to too much radiation. What is “too much radiation?” That’s a great question.
Medical professionals have been taught since the 1940’s that medical and dental imaging carries a tiny chance of increasing a person’s cancer risk, no matter how low the dose. The model that we were taught is called the “linear no-threshold model” (LNT) and it basically claims that any dose of radiation, no matter how small, carries an increased risk of causing cancer. As dentists, we are supposed to weigh this tiny (but not zero) increase in risk against the benefits of whatever x-ray image we wanted to see.
New research published in the American Journal of Clinical Oncology has re-evaluated the original research that we based the LNT model on and has found it to be unconvincing. The original research was performed by exposing fruit flies to various doses of radiation. The damage at each level was measured and the research made the assumption that there is no completely risk-free level of radiation.
In the LNT model, the well-established cancer-causing effects of high doses of radiation are extended downward in a straight line to very low doses. The LNT model assumes there is no safe dose of radiation, no matter how small. However, the human body has evolved the ability to repair damage from low-dose radiation that naturally occurs in the environment.
Basically, the radiation doses that were studied in the 40’s were much to high to extrapolate into low dose medical uses of radiation. We’ve based our concerns about x-ray radiation on doses that are much higher than those experienced by patients. The recent paper was specifically about CT scans, which actually have a much higher exposure to radiation than dental x-rays.
As a profession, dentistry has gone out of its way to expose patients to as little x-ray radiation as possible. But many patient still balk. The effectiveness of x-rays for dental diagnosis cannot be underestimated. But not only are they effective, current research suggests that they are completely safe.
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