Research has proven that X-rays are linked to cancer. As a matter of fact, a study was published that showed that patients who got yearly dental X-rays were between 1.4 and 1.9 times as likely to develop brain cancer than healthy patients who did not receive the same X-rays.

But the truth is, not all imaging techniques were created equal. Herein a little primer:

General X-rays use radiation to look through solid mass, such as our flesh, and show the inner workings of our body. Discovered by accident in 1895 by a German scientist, X-rays have been used for the past century to diagnose bone and joint problems, as well as cavities in our teeth.

CT scans, or computerized tomography scans, use a series of X-ray views taken from many different angles and combine them with computer processing to provide cross-sectional pictures of internal organs. CT scans are often done when someone has internal injuries or to detect and locate a tumor.

Finally, an MRI (or magnetic resonance imaging) does not use radiation at all, but rather uses radio waves together with large magnets to provide cross-sectional pictures of your body as well, often of the brain and spinal cord.

Of the three types of imaging techniques mentioned above, MRIs carry with them the smallest risk of radiation exposure since MRIs do not use radiation at all.

First introduced in the 1970s, CT scans are used often in emergency rooms to diagnose internal injuries, but some say that they are ordered more often than necessary, a symptom of a larger problem with our healthcare system. The radiation exposure from the overuse of CT scans is a serious cause for concern, according to a groundbreaking 2008 study presented at the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine. The study showed alarmingly high amounts of exposure in patients who have had one or more CT scans.

So how to avoid the unnecessary risk associated with too much radiation?

Well, first let’s talk about CT scans, since they seem to carry the highest risk. If your doctor orders a CT scan for you, ask why. Let the doctor convince you that it’s medically necessary before you go in the tube. I actually wanted a CT scan for my son’s head after he fell and needed stitches. The emergency room doctor said that he showed no signs of internal damage and that a CT scan wasn’t necessary — a decision that I look back on gratefully now. Since radiation exposure in children is more potent, it’s important to really discern whether a CT scan is absolutely necessary before having one performed on your child. If it is deemed necessary, make sure the radiologist uses pediatric settings on the CT machine.

Also, ask your doctor if there is another, less risky test that can produce the same results, such as an ultrasound or an MRI. (Pregnant women are often given ultrasounds instead of CT scans to prevent any harm to the fetus.)

In terms of dental X-rays, talk to your dentist. Unless your doc determines a real need for them, better to be discerning. Maybe instead of having them done yearly, every other year will do for you. Yes, the risk may be small, but unlike genetic predisposition to a disease, this risk is entirely preventable, and as the old adage goes — an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

How can I limit my exposure to X-rays?
If your doctor orders a CT scan for you, ask why and whether another, less risky test can produce the same results, such as an ultrasound or an MRI.