When you go to a new dentist, the first thing he or she wants is a full set of x-rays of your mouth. The first may be a panoramic x-ray—your entire mouth shown in one picture—then bitewing x-rays, which are pictures of your upper and lower back teeth. Some dentists, including me, prefer separate x-rays of each area of your mouth in order to see details more clearly.
The state of your mouth on the date of those x-rays tells the dentist what changes or improvements are needed going forward and gives her a way of measuring progress once treatment has begun. They also let the dentist identify problems early on, before they become serious.
Radiation is always a concern with x-rays (and I’ll discuss it below), but don’t let it stop you from having them. They reveal potential problems no dentist can see with the naked eye, even in strong light—problems like decay between teeth, which is not always visible, and bone loss in the jaw due to gum disease or infection.
X-rays also reveal how well the chewing surfaces of your teeth align and mesh. This is important because, as we’ll see in Chapter 4, bite problems can result in chipped, broken, and displaced teeth, sore jaws, headache, toothache, decay, and tooth loss.
After your first set of x-rays, additional sets will be taken from time to time. How often depends on your age and the state of your dental health, but usually not more than every one to two years.
Of course, if you have sudden pain or an unusual symptom, immediate x-rays may be needed.
Modern dentistry also makes use of computerized tomography, or CT, scans. You’re more familiar with CT scans ordered by your physician for medical conditions, but dentistry is also using them today to find tumors fractures, and infections, and to assist in more precise placement of braces and implants.
Radiation risks and benefits
Both x-rays and scans expose you to radiation. With x-rays, the exposure is minimal and extremely brief; with scans, there’s somewhat more. However, benefits almost always outweigh the risks. Especially when it comes to scans, talk to your dentist. Let him know any concerns you may have.
Many dentists now have new dental CT technology that minimizes radiation exposure. For more information, go to imagingsciences.com.
Can these images really save your life?
Because x-rays and scans can “see” places and processes otherwise invisible to your dentist, they serve as excellent diagnostic tools. And yes, in some cases, they can be lifesavers. As I said earlier, we know that infections in the teeth can spread to the heart and arteries. Gum disease is a warning sign for cardiac disease because we know that the same bacteria can infect both parts of the body.
It’s one more factor to consider when thinking about the cost and minimal radiation risk of dental x-rays and CT scans.
The price of a scan depends on where it is taken and its size. In 2017, prices range from $15o to $300 each and are often covered by medical or dental insurance. If you’re concerned about cost, be sure to ask your dentist for information and check your insurance coverage. It’s your investment. In this, as in all aspects of your care, the final decision is yours.