When is an x-ray necessary?

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Usually, the clinicians decide whether a patient needs an x-ray, though the patient also has a say, says Joseph Harpole, MD, from John Randolph Medical Center. Learn more in this video.

X-rays are used to confirm and assist health care practitioners to make a diagnosis and to inform care decisions.

X-rays are used:

  • to detect injury to bones such as fractures
  • to identify bone deformities
  • verify healing of bones
  • verify healing after surgical implants such as knee and hip replacements
  • verify placement of other medical devices such as implantable pumps and catheters
  • sinus x-rays to detect infection

X-rays are also used to identify conditions related to some of the more dense tissues in our body:

  • lungs (pneumonia, bronchitis, foreign body)
  • intestines (obstruction, or presence of air in the bowel)
  • gall stones
  • kidney stones

Your health care practitioner will determine if x-rays are warranted. For example, a diagnosis of a sinus infection may be based on your symptoms; negating the need for an x-ray.

Jill A. Grimes, MD
Family Medicine

Your doctor will probably order  x-rays when the results will likely change his or her management of the injury or condition. For example, is it a broken bone or a sprained ligament? You may also get an x-ray if the results simply tell what to expect about the time-frame for healing, such as a minor fracture in the foot or toe.


Do not be surprised if your doctor does not order an x-ray for an acute injury, such as a hurt back, ankle, or wrist.


X-rays look at bones. They do not see cartilage, muscles, tendons, or ligaments, though sometimes distance between bones suggests lack of cartilage. The vast majority of injuries that doctors see are not from broken bones, but strains and sprains and spasms of muscles and supporting tissue.


The world of medicine is taking a closer look at when interventions such as taking x-rays are really needed to improve patient outcomes, as part of an effort to limit both unnecessary radiation and expense. Medical centers are developing guidelines for different injuries that help physicians determine when an x-ray is truly needed.


The bottom line: x-rays are helpful diagnostic tools for bone injury, but don't assume your treatment of an injury isn't complete without one. 

Continue Learning about X-Ray Imaging

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.