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X-ray - skeleton

A skeletal x-ray is an imaging test used to look at the bones. It is used to detect fractures , tumors, or conditions that cause wearing away (degeneration) of the bone.

Alternative Names

Skeletal survey

How the test is performed

The test is done in a hospital radiology department or in the health care provider’s office by an x-ray technologist.

You will lie on a table or stand in front of the x-ray machine, depending on the bone that is injured. You may be asked to change position so that different x-ray views can be taken.

The x-ray particles pass through the body. A computer or special film records the images.

Structures that are dense (such as bone) will block most of the x-ray particles. These areas will appear white. Metal and contrast media (special dye used to highlight areas of the body) will also appear white. Structures containing air will be black. Muscle, fat, and fluid will appear as shades of gray.

How to prepare for the test

Tell the health care provider if you are pregnant. You must remove all jewelry before the x-ray.

How the test will feel

The x-rays are painless. Changing positions and moving the injured area for different x-ray views may be uncomfortable. If the whole skeleton is being imaged, the test usually takes 1 hour or more.

Why the test is performed

This test is used to look for:

  • Fractures or broken bone
  • Cancer that has spread to other areas of the body
  • Bone damage due to trauma (such as an auto accident) or degenerative conditions

What abnormal results mean

Abnormal findings include:

  • Fractures
  • Bone tumors
  • Degenerative bone conditions
  • Osteomyelitis (inflammation of the bone caused by an infection)

What the risks are

There is low radiation exposure. X-rays machines are set to provide the smallest amount of radiation exposure needed to produce the image. Most experts feel that the risk is low compared with the benefits.

Pregnant women and children are more sensitive to the risks of the x-ray. A protective shield may be worn over areas not being scanned.

References

Clement J. Basic imaging techniques in the adult. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr, Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez’s Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 13, section A.

Clement J. Imaging consideration in the skeletally immature patient. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr, Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez’s Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 13, section B.

Renner JB. Conventional radiography in musculoskeletal imaging. Radiol Clin North Am. 2009 May;47(3):357-72.

Updated: 4/14/2013

Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


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