Dental X-rays, Radiation, and Silencing the Exposure Scare

Dental X-rays, Radiation, and Silencing the Exposure Scare

There is a lot of skepticism about radiation exposure when it comes to x-rays. The media has really raised the public’s fear with sensational claims such as “the radiation can cause cell damage that ultimately leads to cancer”. A claim like this would scare anybody and your first reaction would to avoid radiation exposure at all costs, but that is actually difficult to do. We are all exposed to radiation on a daily basis and it is fundamentally a “dose dependent” concern. Meaning that once you surpass a certain intensity of exposure, it becomes potentially harmful. Take a walk through the woods in Chernobyl? Probably not a good idea. Get a digital dental x-ray? This is such a small dose that it’s negligible compared to everyday exposure.

For a moment here I’m going to get a little scientific so bear with me. At the end of this article I will describe how DurhamDDS and Dr. Bill Argersinger use radiographs to your benefit.

X-Ray Science

Cool graphic of how electromagnetic radiation (like visible light and x-rays) travel in waves

Radiation is any form of energy that travels in a wave such as visible light, radio waves, microwaves, and x-rays. The different types of radiation are characterized by frequency and wavelength. Longer wavelengths, such as radio waves, have a low frequency and are considered “low energy”. While the shorter wavelengths create a greater frequency and are usually considered “higher energy” radiation, such as x-rays. The higher energy waves like x-rays are what makes them so useful in medicine and dentistry. While the skin and soft tissues stop visible light, x-rays are able to penetrate through them to show us things we cannot see like broken bones and cavities!

Old School X-Ray Systems

So since radiation is dose-dependent, what is considered a “safe dose level” for dental films? To answer this, it’s important to understand there are different types of dental offices: old school offices and newer offices. X-ray images are like pictures from a camera and old school offices used to develop them in-house at their practice (these practices have a dark room!) These old school film style x-rays took lots more x-ray energy to get a developable image. But those old-school systems are approved for use by licensure groups like the NC Radiation Commission.

New School X-Ray Systems (Digital)

Digital x-rays require significantly LESS radiation energy to capture a useful image. The radiation needed to produce a useful digital image is 80% less than old-school film radiography. To put this whole radiation dose thing into perspective, you need to know that the average accumulated background radiation dose to an individual for one year is measured in millisieverts or mSv. The average person in the United States receives about 6.2 mSv of radiation every day. Dental films like bitewings (BWs) and periapical radiographs (PAs) using digital phosphor plates expose you to about 0.005 mSv per x-ray picture, not so bad, huh? This LINK is from the UK but it shares a clear description of how dental x-rays differ from other doses.

You’ll be surprised where you are exposed to radiation. Did you know that consuming a banana exposes you to about 1% of your daily dose of radiation?!

So how can we control our exposure? (Without having to stop eating bananas) The best way to limit radiation exposure is to not order and expose yourself to radiographs unless there is a reasonable chance that the information obtained from the radiograph will affect treatment outcomes. Today, there is no such thing as “routine dental x-rays every year”.

Your radiograph frequency depends on risk factors.

Sensitivity is a risk factor, pre-existing dental work is a risk factor, dry mouth is a risk factor. How much plaque on your teeth is a risk factor. There is a long list of risk factors. All of which are considered on a PER PATIENT basis. Then a judgment is made by your dentist regarding what films are beneficial to you and how often those films should be updated.

xray2It is okay to have a reasonable amount of skepticism about your radiation exposure, but remember it is a dose-dependent issue. Take appropriate steps to limit your radiation exposure, however if it is recommended by your dentist that an x-ray is necessary, then it is important to have them done! X-rays help the dentist see things that can’t be seen with the naked eye. A tooth may appear normal and it may not even be causing a patient pain, but there could be a whole different situation happening inside the tooth. The earlier cavities are found, the smaller the filling and the stronger the tooth. Sometimes cavities that are found using x-rays are so small they are reversible with very simple treatments like fluoride varnish. However, if something is missed because a patient insists on not needing x-rays, then it can develop into a much more expensive issue. If you still have concerns about your radiation exposure, talk to your dentist so that they can give you some more clarification on their process for choosing radiographs. In our case it’s 100% based on patient risk factors.

Searching for a dentist in the Triangle area that provides fully digital x-ray service? Give DurhamDDS a call! We offer radiographs (new school digital radiographs) for both adults and children. To set up an appointment give our office a call at 919-286-0779 or visit for more information.