We all know that radiation from X-rays, along with other ionising radiations, is potentially harmful. Indeed, it’s quite easy to start worrying about the “risk” involved in having an X-ray – even though most of the radiation we’re exposed to comes from naturally occurring environmental sources.
Still, the sensible use of X-rays is rightly drummed into medical students, the message being that there must be a good reason to take one. Chest X-rays used to be taken routinely before an operation – a kind of “just in case”. The practice was abandoned when doctors realised that if there were no symptoms or examination findings to suggest an X-ray was needed, it could not be justified. Similarly, X-rays used to be standard for people with low back pain, until it was shown that they did not pinpoint the source of the trouble. These days, for low back pain, they are used only in specific circumstances.
Of course, being overly concerned about the health risks of X-rays can also be dangerous. For example, an unwell woman who is also pregnant will probably not be given one for fear of harming the foetus, even though this reluctance has been cited as a potentially avoidable contribution towards maternal – and foetal – death.
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