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What is the purpose of a dental x-ray and what does it show?

17 November · 5 minutes

When we experience any discomfort in our mouths, we usually go to see the dentist. Sometimes, it’s not easy for the specialist to diagnose if there is a particular problem without carrying out specific tests.

In order to assess the condition of our mouths and detect possible pathologies, dentists may propose taking one or more teeth x-rays that will allow them to find out exactly where the problem is and help to determine how to address it. However, not all dental x-rays are the same, nor do they serve the same purpose. In this article we will discuss the different types of dental radiography that exist, what each one is used for and which ones are necessary for orthodontic treatment.

What is a dental x-ray?

Dental x-rays are tools frequently used by dentists to evaluate our oral health. By capturing images of our teeth, dentists can assess the condition of our mouths and detect problems or pathologies.

What do dental x-rays show and what is the purpose of them?

Dental x-rays are diagnostic tests that show images of the jaw and jawbone, as well as the inside of the teeth in a single shot.

They are used by a specialist to assess the condition of the patient's mouth and to determine if any treatment is needed.

The purpose of dental x-rays is to show high-precision images that allow the dentist to identify problems such as cavities or other infections in the teeth, the state of the wisdom teeth and detect problems in the jaw, amongst others.

Dentist showing a young patient a dental x-ray

Types of dental x-rays

There are several types of dental radiographs that fulfil specific functions. In the following we will look at the different types of dental x-rays depending on the information that needs to be obtained.

Dental x-rays are divided into intraoral x-rays, i.e. those taken inside the oral cavity, and extraoral x-rays, which are taken outside the mouth.

Types of extraoral x-rays

Extraoral x-rays are those that are taken outside the oral cavity.

There are two different types of extraoral radiography, which we will look at in more detail below.

These are:

  • Orthopantomography or panoramic dental x-rays
  • Teleradiography or cephalometric x-rays

Orthopantomography or panoramic dental x-rays

Panoramic dental x-rays, also called orthopantomography, is one of the most common types of teeth radiography, as it provides a general and panoramic view of the entire oral cavity and allows the dentist to detect problems that cannot be identified in an ordinary examination.

This technique uses a special x-ray machine that rotates around the patient’s head to provide a detailed, comprehensive view of the mouth.

Panoramic radiographs are used to show the bone structure (teeth, upper jaw and lower jaw) in a single image.

Orthopantomography accurately detects certain pathologies in the roots of teeth, as well as tumours and abscesses.

This test is also usually carried out before orthodontic treatment begins.

When a patient wants to improve their smile, the dentist can detect caries, unerupted wisdom teeth, jaw fractures and any problem in the development of the teeth by means of a panoramic radiograph.

Knowing this information and having an overall view of the condition of the patient's mouth is essential before starting any orthodontic treatment.

Female patient having a panoramic dental x-ray

Teleradiography or cephalometric x-rays

Lateral teleradiography of the skull, or cephalometric x-rays, is a technique used to determine the position of the bones of the skull, which can influence the position of the teeth.

It is also called lateral dental radiography, since the image is obtained by lateral displacement. These ceph x-rays use a cranial analysis technique that consists of obtaining information on the dimensions of the skull and jaw and allows us to see the distances between the different dental and maxillofacial structures (bones, teeth, muscles or soft tissues).

Cephalogram x-rays are used to identify possible malocclusions and to plan subsequent orthodontic treatment.

Types of intraoral x-rays

Intraoral x-rays are those that are taken inside the mouth and are mainly used to find out more about the condition of our teeth. There are several types of intraoral radiography, which we explain below.

Occlusal dental x-rays

Occlusal x-rays are used to study the relationship between the two arches of the mouth.

To understand what an occlusal dental x-ray is, we must know that occlusion refers to the alignment of the teeth and the way in which the upper and lower teeth fit together (bite).

In short, an occlusal dental x-ray is used to provide an image of the complete dental arch and is performed using radiographic plates of different sizes that are impressed from the outside using an x-ray machine.

Periapical radiography

Periapical radiography is a procedure in which one or more teeth are isolated for more accurate examination. Periapical x-rays are used to diagnose caries and other diseases.

To perform a periapical x-ray, differently sized x-ray plates are used in order to obtain complete images of the teeth; in this way, the crown, root, bone tissue and periodontal space can be seen in their entirety.

Bitewing x-rays

Bitewing x-rays are mainly used to detect caries and to evaluate the state of the crown and periodontal tissue, as well as to detect possible dental pulp alterations.

It is called a dental bitewing x-ray because the x-ray plate has a tab that must be placed between the two dental arches so that it does not move. This type of teeth radiography is able to locate caries found in the space between two teeth (interproximal).

This type of x-ray is especially recommended for children, as sticking the x-ray film to the floor of the mouth is not necessary, making it much faster and more comfortable than other types of dental radiography. Another advantage of bitewing x-rays is that they expose patients to less radiation.

Other types of digital dental x-rays

There are other types of digital dental x-rays such as Cone Beam Computed Tomography (CBCT) or dental CT scans.

Dental CT scans take 3D images of the teeth, soft tissues, nerves and bones of the head, enabling a very accurate diagnosis of the patient's oral cavity.

The images obtained by dental CT scans are high quality detailed images, allowing for more accurate treatment planning and providing the orthodontist with a deeper understanding of the teeth and their relationship to the upper and lower jaw.

Orthodontics and x-rays

X-rays prior to orthodontic treatment with braces or aligners is an absolute necessity, as it allows us to assess the general condition of the mouth, detect possible pathologies and adapt the treatment to the diagnosis offered by the tests.

Close-up of a dental x-ray and a dentist pointing at a tooth

X-rays for braces: which do you need before orthodontics?

In order to know which x-rays are best for orthodontics, it is necessary to get an assessment by a dentist before you begin treatment with braces or aligners. Orthopantomography is often the most commonly used x-ray before orthodontics, as it provides a panoramic view of the mouth.

What happens if you get braces without an x-ray first?

As already mentioned, it is necessary to have x-rays taken before starting orthodontic treatment. If you have aligners or braces fitted without an x-ray prior, you may have undiagnosed cavities which can worsen during treatment, or even lengthen or end it. It may also be the case that a wisdom tooth erupts in the future and does not have space to develop correctly or is poorly positioned, which could move the rest of the teeth. On the other hand, thanks to tests such as panoramic dental x-rays, specialists can detect diseases such as periodontitis, a pathology which, if not considered when planning treatment, could even result in tooth loss.

At Impress we have the latest dental x-ray technology

Our priority is the wellbeing of our patients and, as experts in oral health, we ensure that patients start orthodontic treatment with proper dental and gum health.

If you are thinking of improving your smile and starting orthodontic treatment, at Impress we have the expertise and the tools to take the necessary x-rays before you begin.

In all our centres we carry out panoramic dental x-rays. If you would like to find out which Impress centres have other radiodiagnostic tests available, please contact us. We can also advise you on other dental procedures prior to your orthodontic treatment.

To start orthodontic treatment or for any other queries, please contact us by booking an appointment through our website, by phone or WhatsApp on +44 20 3808 1072 or by writing to us at uk@smile2impress.com.

We hope to see you soon!

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Frequently asked questions about dental x-rays

Are x-rays bad for you?

Nowadays, x-rays are completely safe, as technological advances have meant that the radiation level of teeth x-rays are very low and localised. This, along with the protective elements that are placed on the patient, means that having x-rays are not bad for you, both when it comes to children and adults.

Can you get an x-ray with braces?

X-rays can be taken without any risk to the patient when they are necessary for monitoring during orthodontic treatment; x-rays with braces are completely safe.

Where can I get a dental x-ray?

You can get a dental x-ray in dental practices or centres specialising in radiodiagnostics. It is therefore important to go to a specialist with the appropriate equipment.

Can you get dental x-rays during pregnancy?

As already mentioned, levels of radiation during an x-ray of the mouth is extremely low, so dental x-rays while pregnant are allowed. However, it is up to the specialist to determine whether it is absolutely necessary. If you are or think you may be pregnant, don't forget to tell the dentist before the x-ray is carried out.

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