How Does an X-Ray Work?

Written by kelly townsend
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How Does an X-Ray Work?

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As useful as they are in the modern world of medicine, it is fascinating to think that X-rays were happened upon by pure accident. Discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Roentgen, X-rays allow medical professionals to see through human tissue, which helps in diagnosing certain conditions such as broken bones and joint dislocations. Additionally, dentists use X-rays to help determine the health of teeth.


X-rays differ from visible light rays because X-rays have a shorter wavelength, a difference that gives them their unique properties. The reason that visible light allows us to see objects is because those objects absorb the photons in the visible light rays. This lets our eyes perceive the form and shape of the image. X-rays, however, are not absorbed by as many things due to the shorter wavelength.


X-ray machines consist of an electron pair within a glass tube at the core of the machine. Similar to a fluorescent lamp, one half of the electron pair is a heated filament. As it is heated, it gives off electrons that are drawn through the device by the other half. This process creates an x-ray, which is then focused through the patient's body. The machine has cooling elements inside in order to keep the energy of the reaction from damaging the machine.

The Camera

When the x-ray is sent through the patient's body, the skin tissue does not absorb the wave. However, denser objects such as bones, tendons and ligaments may absorb the X-rays. On the other side of the part of the body that is being x-rayed is a camera. That camera has the task of picking up the pattern left behind by the X-rays. The film for this camera is similar to ordinary camera film but it is set off by x-ray light, as opposed to visible light.

Viewing X-rays

The image is kept as a negative, which means that the darker areas on the image were actually exposed to more light. To better view the resulting film, the x-ray picture is typically placed onto a white screen with light shining through. Since object such as bones absorb a lot of the x-ray, they appear lighter than the rest of the image.


Before the invention of an x-ray, doctors would sometimes be forced to do exploratory surgery to diagnose some injuries and diseases. Now, an x-ray is a quick and painless procedure that has become a common occurrence is just about every doctor's office and hospital in the civilised world.

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