If X-rays are so dangerous, why do we still use them?

In today’s world, doctors conduct X-rays to diagnose many types of medical issues: broken bones, heart failure, pneumonia and more.

The fact that ordering x-rays to find the cause of some medical issues has become normal making us oblivious to how it was discovered and the dangers that come with it. Shockingly, not so long ago something such as a tumour or a broken bone could not be found without cutting a person open.

X-rays are a powerful type of electromagnetic radiation that was discovered in November 1895 by German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen. They are very useful because they can go through substances that light cannot. X-rays can show images of the inside of an object, such as a suitcase or the human body.

Roentgen was a professor of Physics in Wurzburg, Germany, and accidentally discovered X-rays in 1895 while testing whether cathode rays could pass through glass. (A cathode ray is a beam of electrons emitted from the cathode of a high-vacuum tube.) His cathode tube was covered in black paper, so he was surprised to find that when a fluorescent green light passed through the paper and projected onto a nearby fluorescent screen. Through numerous experiments, he found that the ‘mysterious light’ would pass through most substances but leave shadows of solid objects. Because he did not know what these rays were, he called them ‘X,’ indicating ‘unknown’ rays.

Roentgen quickly found that X-rays would pass through human tissue too, making the bones and tissue underneath visible. Word on his discovery spread rapidly worldwide, with doctors in Europe and the United States using X-rays to locate bone fractures, gunshots and kidney. He began to receive numerous awards for his discovery including the first Nobel Prize in physics in 1901.

Today, X-rays help doctors see inside our bodies. An x-ray image shows shades of grey, which is just how much of the x-ray beam manages to get through your body. If the area of the body is very dense (like bone) it will come up white, if it is less dense, like organ tissue, it will come up as a dark shade of grey. Radiographers, those who work the x-ray, can control the amount and strength of the x-ray beam so that the body parts they want to see come up on the images, helping to guide the surgeons in the operating theatre.

And this is something you may be surprised to know. There are many more uses of X-rays outside of the medical industry. X-rays have been allowing archaeologists to read long-lost documents and writing found on historic artefacts. For many years, researchers have sought out the writings that were found on objects such a coffin from many centuries ago, which could contain previously undiscovered knowledge about the ancient civilisation, but the issue was that there was no way of getting inside them without destroying its contents. Now, thanks to the advancements in X-ray technologies and imaging techniques, that has all been changing.

However, having too many x-ray scans or being exposed to a lot of x-ray radiation can be dangerous. They can damage the cells in your body (which is why the radiographer leaves the room while you get your x-ray done). Surprisingly, sometimes the damage to cells after being exposed to this radiation is a good thing; a treatment called radiotherapy uses x-rays to kill bad cells such as cancer cells. However, if you do need an x-ray, you will only be exposed to a very small dose of it so there is no need to worry!

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