Every once in a while someone will say “My brother/husband/friend/neighbor wants to come and see you but doesn’t want to have x-rays.” This person will either choose not to see a chiropractor period or see someone who chooses to see patients without x-rays.
The concern with being exposed to the radiation that goes along with x-ray imaging is understandable. Radiation increases your risk of cancer, right? It can, but only in the right dose. In fact, did you know that radiation is a naturally occurring phenomenon? It’s true. Radiation is all around us. Smoking cigarettes emit radiation. Humans emit radiation! Yet I haven’t found “huggers” to be more prone to cancer.
The largest source of radiation we are exposed to comes from nature. The average human is exposed to 3,000 microsieverts (a unit that measures radiation) from gases in the soil, cosmic radiation, and sunlight. The exposure increases at higher elevation, as well. For example, people living in the mountains or spending a lot of time on a plane are exposed to more radiation. One estimate shows that 30 hours of flying is the equivalent of having a chest x-ray. That’s not even a full work week for a typical pilot or flight attendant. That means your average pilot has the equivalent of 6 or more x-rays per month because of naturally occurring radiation. They aren’t dropping like flies from cancer, are they?
Besides, when it comes back to diagnostic x-ray, the type of imaging is very important. The imaging we use in the chiropractic profession is called plain film imagining, which uses a much lower dose of radiation versus computed topography (CT or CAT scans). One CT scan of the abdomen has the same dose of radiation as having over 100 standard x-rays! So you could have two x-rays per week in our office for an entire year and that wouldn’t even equal one CAT scan.
The benefits of having x-rays in the vast majority of cases outweigh the risks, especially when you consider what can happen when your chiropractor (or osteopath or physical therapist) tries moving around your spinal bones while flying blind.
Case in point, I had the pleasure of meeting a very pleasant 68 year female with back and neck pain. Let’s just call her Lucy. She sustained no significant injuries and had no findings that would indicate a risk of fracture or other life-threatening condition. However, when I take on a patient’s case, I want to have all the information so I can render the best care possible. Here is what her neck looked like:
Here is what a neck SHOULD look like, for comparison:
For those who aren’t familiar to anatomy on x-ray, Lucy’s film shows that her entire cervical spine is fused from C2 down. When you look at the second (normal) film, all the bones are separated by a nice clear line and empty space. This “empty” space is called a disc. It looks empty because discs are made of cartilage, which does not show up on x-ray.
I would not have known Lucy had this condition had I not taken the proper films of her spine. If I was like so many PTs, DOs, and DCs who “navigate by feel, I would found tightness and fixation throughout her neck and tried to manipulate joints in the lower neck that are not there! Luckily for Lucy, the C1-C2 or Atlas-Axis joint is still well-maintained, which means we have something to work with.
She is doing great, by the way, because the x-rays we take give us the information we need to get a good correction. To see is to know. To not see is to guess. And we will NOT guess with something as important as your health.