Why do dentists take x-rays?

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Dental radiographs are an essential diagnostic tool for evaluation of your oral health. Even with a thorough visual clinical examination there may be conditions that can only be detected with radiographs. Radiographs are important for diagnosis of decay, periodontal disease, impacted teeth, missing teeth, endodontic problems, cysts, growths and many other abnormalities.

Usually a complete series of oral radiographs, or the equivalent, is indicated when you start with a new dentist. Depending on when previous radiographs were taken, this may be postponed if previous radiographic series can be transferred from your last dentist. Also depending on the condition of your teeth periodic cavity-detecting radiographs are usually indicated every one to two years. Although dentists, just as patients, want to minimize patient radiation exposure, the frequency with which radiographs are advised may vary depending on the condition of the patient's teeth including decay, frequency of decay detected and periodontal disease.

Dentists use x-rays to find cavities, abscesses, and pathology of the teeth and jawbone. X-rays show small cavities that would not be visible until they had gotten very large. The treatment for small cavities is usually easier and more economical than treatment for large cavities. X-rays may also show the beginnings of an abscessed tooth that has not yet begun to hurt. Detecting early abscessed teeth on x-rays can prevent future pain in a tooth. X-rays may also show cysts and tumors around teeth. Found early, the treatment is usually less involved. Your dentist will advise you when x-rays are necessary.

Many diseases of the oral cavity (which includes the teeth and surrounding tissues and bone) cannot be seen when the dentist examines your mouth. An x-ray exam may help the dentist see:
  • small areas of decay between the teeth or below fillings
  • bone damage from a tooth infection (such as an abscess) or a cyst
  • bone loss due to periodontal (gum) disease
  • developmental defects
  • some types of tumors
  • the effects of trauma
  • the position of unerupted teeth in children and adults
Finding and treating dental problems at an early stage can save time, money and unneeded discomfort and help prevent more serious health problems. X-ray images may be able to help the dentist detect damage and disease not visible during a regular dental exam.

If you change dentists, you usually can arrange to have copies of your x-ray images sent from your previous dentist to your new dentist. If you are not able to, your new dentist may take x-rays for the reasons listed above, or so he or she can compare them with future x-ray images.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.