Chest X-Rays

1 What are Chest X-rays?

Chest X-rays produce images of your heart, lungs, airways, blood vessels and bones of your chest and spine. Chest X-rays can also be used to reveal fluid in your lungs or air surrounding the lungs.

If you go to your doctor or the emergency room with chest pain, a chest injury or shortness of breath, you will typically get a chest X-ray.

The image will make it possible for the doctor to determine whether you have any heart problems, a collapsed lung, pneumonia, broken ribs, emphysema, cancer or any of several other conditions.

The chest X-ray is a common method used in diagnosing a disease. It can also be used to tell whether a particular treatment is effective or not.

Some individuals have a series of chest X-rays done over time, this is done to keep track of whether a health problem is getting better or worse.

2 Reasons for Procedure

Here are the most common reasons to undergo a chest X-rays procedure.

A Chest X-ray is often among the first procedures you will undergo if your doctor suspects you have heart or lung disease. It can also be used to check how you are responding to treatment.

A Chest X-ray can reveal many things inside your body, including:

  • The condition of your lungs: Chest X-rays can detect cancer, infection or air collecting in the space around a lung (pneumothorax). They can also show chronic lung conditions, such as emphysema or cystic fibrosis, as well as complications related to these conditions.
  • Heart-related lung problems: Chest X-rays can show changes or problems in your lungs that stem from heart problems. For instance, fluid in your lungs (pulmonary edema) can be a result of congestive heart failure.
  •  The size and outline of your heart: Changes in the size and shape of your heart may indicate heart failure, fluid around the heart (pericardial effusion) or heart valve problems.
  • Blood vessels: Because the outlines of the large vessels near your heart — the aorta and pulmonary arteries and veins — are visible on X-rays, they may reveal aortic aneurysms, other blood vessel problems or congenital heart disease.
  • Calcium deposits: Chest X-rays can detect the presence of calcium in your heart or blood vessels. Its presence may indicate damage to your heart valves, coronary arteries, heart muscle or the protective sac that surrounds the heart. Calcium deposits in your lungs are most often from an old, resolved infection.
  • Fractures: Rib or spine fractures or other problems with bone may be seen on a chest X-ray.
  • Postoperative changes: Chest X-rays are useful for monitoring your recovery after you've had surgery in your chest, such as on your heart, lungs or esophagus. Your doctor can look at any lines or tubes that were placed during surgery to check for air leaks and areas of fluid or air buildup.
  • A pacemaker, defibrillator or catheter: Pacemakers and defibrillators have wires (leads) attached to your heart to make sure your heart rate and rhythm are normal. Catheters are small tubes used to deliver medications or for dialysis. A chest X-ray usually is taken after placement of such medical devices to make sure everything is positioned accordingly.

3 Potential Risks

Along with undergoing a chest X-rays procedure comes potential risks.

You may have concerns about radiation exposure from X-rays, especially if you have them regularly. However, the amount of radiation used in from a Chest X-ray is low, even compared to what you are exposed to natural sources of radiation in the environment.

Even though the benefits of an X-ray outweigh the risks, you may be given a protective apron if you need more than one image. Be sure to tell your doctor if you are pregnant or might be. The procedure can be performed in a way that protects your abdomen from the radiation.

4 Preparing for your Procedure

In order to prepare to the chest X-ray, you generally undress from the waist up and put on an exam gown.

You will need to remove any jewelry you have on from the waist up, too, since both clothing and jewelry can obscure the X-ray images.

5 What to Expect

Read on to learn more about what to expect before, during, and after your chest X-rays.

During the procedure, your body is put in a position between a machine that produces X-rays and a plate that digitally creates the image or creates it with X-ray film.

You may be asked to move into different positions in order to be viewed from both the front and the side of your chest.

During the front view, you stand against the plate, hold your arms up or to the sides and roll your shoulders forward.

The X-ray technician may ask you to take a deep breath and hold it for several seconds. This helps your heart and lungs show up more clearly on the image.

In the side views, you turn and place one shoulder on the plate and raise your hands over your head again. Again, you may be asked to take a deep breath and hold it.

Having X-rays taken is generally painless. You do not feel any sensation as the radiation passes through your body.

If you have trouble standing, you may be able to have the exam while seated or lying down.

6 Procedure Results

Understanding the results of your chest X-rays procedure will be made possible by your doctor.

A chest X-ray produces a black and white image of the organs in your chest. Structures that block radiation appears white, and those that let radiation through appearing black.

Your bones appear white because they are very dense, your heart also appears as a lighter area. Your lungs are filled with air and block very little radiation, so they appear as darker areas on the images.

A radiologist (a doctor who specializes in the interpretation of X-rays and other imaging exams) analyzes the images, looking for any clues that may suggest if you have heart failure, fluid around your heart, cancer, pneumonia or another condition.

Your own doctor will discuss the results with you as well as the treatments or other test/procedures that may be required.