X-rays of the Extremities

What Are X-rays?

X-rays are the most common and readily available form of diagnostic imaging. When you are X-rayed, the imaging machine sends electromagnetic waves of radiation through your body and onto a digital sensor that reflects your anatomical structures. The result is an X-ray image of bones and their surrounding soft tissue. The radiation exposure level from a typical X-ray is not harmful.

Depending on the body matter X-rayed, varying levels of radiation beams pass through. As a result, images are in gradients of light and dark. Soft tissue like muscle, fat, and skin allow the highest levels of radiation through and appear as a dark grey in the X-ray. Bones, which are denser, allow far fewer beams through, and appear as white on the X-ray.

Why You May Need Orthopedic X-rays of Your Extremities

X-rays of your extremities—including the shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, hands, hips, legs, knees, ankles, or feet—are ordered for a variety of reasons. Typically bones and surrounding tissues are assessed for chronic and degenerative issues or injuries. Your doctor could be looking for evidence of any of the following conditions:

  • Arthritis
  • Birth defects
  • Bone deformities
  • Bone spurs
  • Dislocations
  • Foreign bodies
  • Fractures
  • Infections
  • Osteoporosis
  • Sports injuries
  • Tendonitis
  • Tumors (abnormal masses of cells)

X-rays are also used, post-treatment, to ensure that a bone has been properly realigned and stabilized after a fracture.

Who Performs an X-ray?

A trained, skilled radiology technologist will perform your X-ray, and a radiologist—who specializes in reading, assessing, and interpreting various imaging methods—will evaluate your results and report them back to your doctor.

What You Need to Know about Your X-ray

X-rays typically don’t require you to take care or precaution either before or after the test. If you are pregnant or think you might be—or if you recently underwent a barium X-ray procedure—be sure to tell your doctor and your technologist prior to being X-rayed. Your healthcare provider may give you other instructions after the procedure, depending on your particular situation.

X-ray procedure themselves are painless, but the movement and positioning of your extremities during the X-rays could be awkward and uncomfortable. You are assured that the X-rays will be completed as quickly as possible and any uneasiness you feel will be met promptly with comfort measures.

For orthopedic X-rays you are likely to be X-rayed from various angles, but your entire session probably won’t last much longer than 15 minutes. The images will be ready almost immediately and can usually be read the same day.

Before Your X-ray Session

  • Your doctor will explain the X-ray procedure to you and provide you an opportunity to ask questions.
  • You will be asked to remove any clothing, medical devices, or accessories that could interfere with the X-rays. If you are asked to remove clothing, a gown will be provided for you to wear.

During Your X-ray session

  • Any body parts not being X-rayed may be covered with a lead apron shield to avoid radiation exposure.
  • You will be positioned carefully so that the best possible X-rays can be taken with the least amount of radiation possible.
  • You will need to hold still in a certain position momentarily while the X-ray imaging is performed.
  • The X-ray images are created.

After Your X-ray Session

After your X-ray is completed, you should be free to leave without restrictions unless your doctor discusses any special instructions with you. Your X-ray study will be read and interpreted by a radiologist, who will send the assessment to your doctor within a day or two. Your doctor will explain the results to you, and determine next steps based on the findings.

For X-rays & Other Procedures, Always Ask Questions

  • Why is this test being ordered?
  • What are the risks and benefits of the test?
  • What are the potential side effects?
  • What are the credentials and qualifications of my care team?
  • What are the consequences of not having the test?
  • Are there alternatives to having this test?
  • What do the results mean?
  • Whom do I call with questions?