The Reality of Hospital X-Ray Doses: How Much is Too Much?

Posted On May 25, 2021

Have you ever undergone a radiological examination and wondered about the consequences of the radiation you receive?

X-rays were first discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen, a professor of Physics in Wurzburg, Bavaria. X-rays are the commonest type of radiation utilized in the medical field, and can be classified as ionising radiation. This means that it possesses sufficient energy to damage genetic material by affecting the atomic structure. Clinicians use x-ray examinations, such as a standard chest x-ray or computed tomography (CT) scans, in order to visualise internal structures, such as one’s bones and vasculature.

Excessive exposure to radiation may have adverse effects on one’s health. So why are x-rays and other forms of radiation still used in the medical field? As with numerous interventions and tests in medicine, a risk always exists. Such examples include undergoing surgery, which brings with it a risk of complications; and when taking a medicine, there being the risk of an allergic reaction. However, with each of these, including radiological examinations, the risk of performing the intervention or procedure is much lower than the risk of not doing it. The benefits therefore outweigh the risks. Therefore, even though radiation is invariably harmful to the body, even in small quantities, when justified and used properly, it provides a useful tool for diagnosis.

Medical and paramedical professionals are trained to evaluate this risk-benefit ratio, and to only request examinations which make use of radiation when necessary. This reduces unjustified radiation exposures, and minimises any risk.

In addition, the doses used in modern imaging examinations are staggeringly low. We are all exposed to natural radiation in our environment, on average ranging from 1.5 to 3.5 mSv per year. To compare, one standard adult chest x-ray is about the same as 10 days of background radiation that we are all exposed to as part of our daily living. CT scans deliver a much higher dose of radiation, yet still are within the safe limit.

Therefore, one ought to not be afraid or weary of undergoing a standard radiological examination when there is a medical reason to do so, such as an x-ray for broken bones or a CT scan. The real risk with radiation should not be overlooked, and should be discussed with your clinician if it is something worrisome for you. However, these examinations are done with the purpose of diagnosing and ameliorating one’s health.

Written by Robert Pisani


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