Radiation exists in many forms, not all of which are ionizing, the form of radiation that poses a risk to our health.
Low frequency radiation, such as radio waves, thermal/microwaves, infrared, and visible light waves are to low penetrating power to cause changes to the atoms and molecules that make up our body, therefore classifying these types as non-ionizing.
However, higher frequency radiation such as UV, x-ray, and gamma-rays are able to displace electrons from their natural state, and therefore have the capacity to cause cellular damage and pose a risk to human health.
We are constantly and continuously exposed to radiation in the environment (i.e., cosmic sources, radioactive nucleotides) as well as through man-made sources (i.e., medical imaging).
All dental and medical professionals must always weigh the direct benefit and consequences to their patient when prescribing diagnostic imaging (such as chest x-rays, mammograms, CT scans, dental x-rays, etc.). They must ask themselves, “Is the information I will receive from this x-ray worth the size of the risk to my patient?” They must also ask, “Is there an alternative to this x-ray?”
In the case of dental x-rays. Most dental professionals can prescribe either 2D dental x-rays or a 3D x-ray, known as a CBCT.
The CBCT allows the clinician to see the teeth and their location in the jaw bone in all 3-dimensions and allows them to map critical structures, to view the quality and quantity of the bone, and to perform a ‘virtual periodontal or endodontic surgery’ without the need for gloves!
In many cases, this amount of information is unnecessary and a single (or multiple) 2D x-rays are sufficient for diagnosis of tooth decay, periodontal disease, or other common dental issues.
Although a dental CBCT does emit more radiation to the patient than a conventional 2D digital x-ray, the amount of radiation is still negligible compared to many other medical imaging devices and other common sources of radiation.
Concerns about radiation exposure and your risk are valid, but you should take every opportunity to speak to your dentist or periodontist about the safety measures and considerations to your personal health when they prescribe an x-ray to help in your dental care.