Is Radiation Exposure from Dental X-Rays a “Real” Health Threat? Setting the Record Straight

by Jeannie Cordova on 05/03/2012

A recent study published in the March 2012 Cancer Journal for Clinicians linked dental X-rays, a source of ionizing radiation, with an increased risk of developing meningioma.  The most commonly diagnosed type of brain tumor, meningioma grows in membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. While generally noncancerous, it can lead to headaches, vision and memory problems, and loss of speech and motor control.

These “alarming” study results were picked up by national news channels but unfortunately the coverage was somewhat sensationalized and, as a result, many patients may now be needlessly fearful of receiving dental X-rays. Most of the news coverage omitted the very important fact that many study participants received their X-rays many years ago when radiation exposure was much higher than it is with new technologies in use today.

Indeed, a full series of 18 dental X-rays has 27 times less radiation than a lower gastrointestinal (GI) series and 20 times less radiation than one year of normal background radiation from the environment. The 4 bitewing X-rays taken during dental check ups have 79 times less radiation than a year of normal background radiation. Further, as more and more dentists are using special high-speed film, thyroid collars and digital X-rays machines, dental X-rays are becoming even safer.

Declining dental X-rays based on unfounded fears regarding radiation exposure removes an important diagnostic tool from a dentist’s repertoire.  X-rays are an essential diagnostic tool with dentists relying on them for:

  • exposing hidden dental decay,
  • revealing dental abscesses, cysts and tumors,
  • showing impacted or extra teeth,
  • determining the condition of fillings, crowns, bridges, and root canals,
  • locating tarter build-up,
  • finding foreign bodies within the gum or bone, and
  • identifying bone loss from periodontal (gum) disease and whether enough bone for dental implant placements.

Of course X-rays should not be taken unnecessarily but rather used judiciously. The American Dental Association’s long-standing position is that dentists should order dental X-rays for patients only when necessary for diagnosis and treatment. In addition, dentists should encourage patients to ask questions if they seem concerned about radiation exposure or the need for X-rays.

The ADA also issued a public statement pointing out the potential flaws in the March 2012 study and encouraged further research:

The results rely on individual memories of having dental X-rays taken years earlier. Studies have shown that the ability to recall information is often imperfect. … Also, the study acknowledges that some of the subjects received dental X-rays decades ago when radiation exposure was greater. Radiation rates were higher in the past due to the use of old X-ray technology and slower speed film.

The reality today is that dental X-rays expose patients to very low levels of radiation. In spite of these low radiation levels, dentists are still concerned about minimizing the amount of radiation a patient receives at the dental office.

We recommend all offices follow ADA’s 2004 Guidelines for the Selection of Patients for Dental Radiograph Examinations – click here to visit the ADA website and download the PDF. And, we recommend that offices post ADA’s complimentary “Safe Use of Radiographs in Dentistry” poster – click here to order one for your office.

The full article, Dental X-Rays and the Risk of Meningioma, from the Cancer Journal for Clinicians can be viewed at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cncr.26625/pdf.

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