From changing skincare products to avoiding excess caffeine and certain types of fish, there are a lot of things to avoid while expecting. So when you need an x-ray at your dentist’s office or to view an aching shoulder or injured ankle, it’s easy to question if x-rays are safe.
There are many types of imaging studies but often the diagnostic x-ray is the most frequent cause of anxiety for patients. Many are anxious due to the belief that radiation exposure is harmful. X-rays involve exposing the body to a small amount of radiation, which allows a doctor to view images of your bones and organs. They are used to detect everything from the health of your teeth to a broken bone. The amount of radiation you are exposed to depends upon the type of imaging study you have. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends you refrain from undergoing an x-ray that exposes you to more than 5 rad of radiation. You can ask your radiology technician about the level of radiation exposure before getting an x-ray or any imaging study such as a CT scan or an MRI.
The concern with radiation exposure is that, in larger quantities, the radiation could alter cellular makeup, possibly causing birth defects. A plain x-ray generally exposes the fetus to very small amounts of radiation. During x-rays to the head, arms, legs, chest, and legs, the uterus is shielded for nonpelvic procedures and the fetal exposure of millirads is minimal and therefore safe for pregnant women with a few exceptions and precautions.
Remember that sometimes the risks for not getting an x-ray outweigh the minimal risks of getting one. For example, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found an estimated one-third of women have not been to the dentist and gotten a diagnostic dental x-ray in a year or more. Pregnant women experience changes to their gums and teeth that increase the risk for conditions such as periodontal disease and gingivitis. Identifying these concerns early can help prevent more serious dental issues down the road.
Wanting to pursue an alternate option to x-ray imaging while pregnant is understandable. If your doctor recommends an x-ray, you could ask if it is possible to perform an ultrasound instead. This uses sound waves to create images of the body.
If you are past your first trimester of pregnancy, you could also consider magnetic resonance imaging or MRI as an alternative to x-ray imaging. You can discuss these options with your physician. However, x-ray imaging is generally considered safe and may be the best (and least expensive) option for your condition.
Reviewed by Dr. Jen Lincoln, April 2020
- X-rays are considered safe during pregnancy.
- Pregnant women should undergo x-rays that involve exposure to less than 5 rad of radiation.
- Pregnant women may wish to avoid abdominal x-rays that expose the most direct radiation. Ultrasound and MRI after the first trimester can be alternate options.