What Are X-Rays: A Comprehensive Guide for Radiation Protection

X-rays are a common feature in modern life, making frequent appearances at the doctor’s office, airport, and the dentist. But what are x rays? And are they harmful to humans?

If you are new to the exciting world of x-ray technology and protection, continue reading to answer the most frequently asked questions surrounding x-rays.

What Are X Rays?

X-rays are a form of penetrating radiation wave. They exist on the same spectrum of energy waves as visible light and gamma radiation.

X-ray imaging is a powerful medical and security tool that helps identify interior damage like broken bones and tumors. It can also be used to verify packages’ contents and check the quality of construction procedures like welding.

Excessive x-ray exposure can increase the risk of radiation-induced conditions like cataracts and cancer.

What Kind of Rays Are X-Rays?

X-rays are a kind of electromagnetic wave. Electromagnetic waves exist on a spectrum, with the variation being determined by wave frequency and length. For example, visible light, radio waves, and microwaves all exist on the electromagnetic spectrum, but these waves have different wavelengths and frequencies from x-rays.

While radio waves, microwaves, and visible light feature long waves and lower frequencies, x-rays, and their more dangerous cousin, gamma rays, are composed of tight, high-frequency waves. 

The electromagnetic spectrum is further divided into 2 categories: non-ionizing and ionizing radiation. X-rays fall into the “ionizing radiation” category. We’ll explain what that means in just a moment, but first, let’s get a few more x-ray basics out of the way.

How Are X-Rays Created?

The most common way to generate x-rays is to use an X-ray tube. These devices accelerate electrons using high voltage. The electrons are then directed towards a material (usually tungsten). When the incoming electrons collide with the tungsten atoms, they knock electrons out of orbit. This creates a vacancy, which, when filled by another electron, causes the release of a specific electromagnetic wave — an x-ray.

X-ray machines can generate and then aim vast amounts of x-rays at a target (e.g., a person or bag) to create a visualization of what’s inside.

How Do X-Rays Penetrate Matter?

Thanks to their tight wavelength and high frequency, x-rays can penetrate materials that visible light cannot. This makes them incredibly useful for medical and security applications.

The ability of an x-ray to move through a material is based on the atomic composition of the material. Materials made up of atoms with a lighter atomic mass allow x-rays to pass through, while materials with heavy atomic mass can stop x-rays.

This is exactly what makes x-rays so useful for medical procedures.

Muscles, flesh, and organs are made from lighter elements like oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen, while bones are full of calcium — a much denser element.

When an x-ray machine is aimed at, for example, an arm, the waves have no trouble passing through the soft tissue and coming out the other side. But the rays are blocked by the bones in the arm.

In short, x-rays create radiographic images the same way the sun creates shadows — shining at an object and creating shadows on the other side where the light waves are blocked.

Of course, in the case of x-ray images, the shadow is inverted, with the darker parts of the picture showing where the rays were unimpeded, while the lighter parts show where the rays were blocked by bone and other dense objects.

What Are X Rays Waves Used For?

X-rays are used in a wide range of applications, including airport security and construction, but for the purpose of this article, let’s focus on how these rays are used in medical procedures.

Conditions that may require an x-ray to diagnose and treat include:

  • Fractures
  • Tooth decay
  • Bone cancer
  • Blocked blood vessels
  • Breast tumors
  • Digestive problems
  • Arthritis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Brain tumors
  • And more

There are several different types of x-rays, each one designed to detect a specific type of condition or facilitate a specific procedure. These include:

  • Conventional Radiology. Creates 2-D images useful for viewing bone fractures, dental conditions, the chest, and tissues dense in calcium. This is the most common type of x-ray used, for example, to identify broken bones.
  • CT Scan (Computerized Tomography). CT scans use advanced computer processing to generate high-resolution, 3-D images that reveal tissues, bones, and internal abnormalities. For example, a CT scan can help identify blood clots, fractures, and heart disease.
  • Angiography. This x-ray method is used to examine organs, arteries, and veins. For these soft-tissue subjects to show up on x-rays, a contrast agent is injected into the bloodstream before the procedure.
  • Mammography. Also known as a “mammogram,” this screening method is used to detect breast cancer and diagnose breast disease.
  • Fluoroscopy. This technique produces x-ray images that are compiled to create a video of continuous movement. This allows doctors to view real-time movement like the beating of a heart, blood flow, or food movement following a swallow. Fluoroscopies are also used to help guide medical procedures like surgery or catheter placement.

What Are the Dangers of X-Rays?

X-rays have saved countless lives and continually contribute to the safety of society. But despite their unique advantages and great contributions to healthcare, the powerful x-ray is also capable of great harm. 

Now that you understand what x-rays are and how they’re used, let’s shift focus and explore some of the dangers associated with these rays and how you can protect yourself from x-ray radiation. 

Is X-Ray Radiation Harmful?

As mentioned earlier, the electromagnetic wavelength is divided into two sections: non-ionizing wavelengths and ionizing.

X-rays fall into the ionizing radiation camp, which means that these rays can remove electrons from the atoms they pass through. This ionizing quality is what makes x-rays dangerous, as knocking electrons out of orbit can alter molecules in the cells of your body.

This happens because unbalanced atoms turn into electrically charged atoms or ions — disruptive entities that move recklessly inside cells and inflict damage on cell DNA and molecules. 

How Much X-Ray Radiation Is Dangerous? 

Fortunately, the average patient has nothing to fear from getting the occasional diagnostic x-ray. This is because the cell damage from these infrequent exposures is too small to make any real impact on your health.

Unfortunately, when it comes to x-ray damage, the at-risk segment includes nurses, doctors, and other healthcare professionals.

This is because radiation has a cumulative effect on the body, with each fresh exposure layering on the damage until a critical threshold is reached and health conditions can occur.

How much radiation do you need to be exposed to cause harm?

According to the American College of Radiology, 100 mSv is the risk threshold. In layman terms, this is the equivalent of roughly 10,000 conventional chest x-rays or about 25 chest CT scans — yes, CT scans deliver significantly more radiation than conventional radiology (7 mSv vs. 0.01 mSv).

So while patients will struggle ever to reach the 100 mSv threshold, unprotected healthcare professionals can reach this amount of cumulative radiation exposure quite quickly.

How to Protect Yourself From X-Rays

In mitigating the risk of excess radiation exposure, patients and healthcare professionals must wear x-ray radiation protection garments and use x-ray protection equipment like mobile lead shields.

How Does an X-Ray Protection Apron Stop Radiation?

As mentioned earlier, the atomic mass of an element determines whether or not x-rays can pass through it.

So while x-rays can easily pass through carbon (atomic mass 12), they have a harder time getting through calcium (atomic mass 40) and are stopped dead in their tracks by lead (atomic mass 207).

By manufacturing xray aprons and other x ray radiation protection garments from lead and other heavy elements like bismuth, we’re able to offer healthcare professionals effective protection x-rays.

What Are the Best X-Ray Protection Equipment Options?

Here at Barrier Technologies, we offer a suite of cutting-edge x-ray protection equipment, including:

Incorporating protective apparel and barriers like these into your healthcare practice mitigates the risk of excessive radiation exposure and sets yourself up for a long and healthy medical career.

To learn more about our industry-leading x-ray protection technology and apparel, contact Barrier Technologies today.