A computerized X-ray

How Do X-Rays Work?

X-rays were an accidental discovery by German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen. While working with cathode rays, beams of electrodes in specialized tubes, he noticed a surprising glow from a nearby screen. Further experimentation showed that X-rays (“X” because he wasn’t quite sure what it was) could see what was happening on the other side of certain non-metallic objects. Since then, X-rays have been used in a wide variety of technological advancements.

What are X-rays?

X-rays are magnetic wavelengths, or electromagnetic radiation, 1000 times shorter than the normal wavelengths of light that human eyes can perceive. X-rays not only are shorter, but also have a higher amount of energy, which means they can actually pass through nonmetallic, low-density materials. Medically speaking, this allows doctors to take “pictures” of internal structures, like bones or other organ tissue. 

How are X-rays taken? 

There are different ways of creating X-ray images. When taking a medical X-ray, radiographs are a common method. This requires both a source and a detector of the X-rays. The body part to be radiographed is put in between the source and detector. The X-rays are sent from the source, through the body, and onto the detector.

Depending on how dense the object is, an image forms as the detector “detects” differing amounts of light rays on the other side of the patient. So, when taking a radiograph of an arm bone, the X-rays are sent from the source. The skin and less dense structures let the X-rays pass through, while the arm bone is so dense that very few pass all the way through, making it contrast sharply. Thus, the black and white shades of finished radiographs.

What are X-rays used for?

X-rays have become extremely useful for a wide variety of diagnostic procedures. Additionally, some treatments have been made possible through X-rays as well.

Using radiographs, healthcare professionals can view breaks or fractures in bones, tumors or other masses, signs of pneumonia, foreign objects in the body, and other types of damage. Mammograms, computed tomography (CT) scans, and fluoroscopy all utilize X-ray technology to create more specialized diagnostic machines.

Radiation therapy utilizes X-ray technology to direct radiation at cancerous cells. The DNA is damaged, and the cancer cells are (hopefully) destroyed.

Unfortunately, the ionizing radiation produced by X-rays can also cause some damage to the body. An X-ray here and there isn’t going to seriously hurt you, but, over time, the radiation of X-rays builds up to potentially cause skin burns and damage. It can even slightly increase the risk of developing cancer later on in life.  

Last Updated: April 11, 2016