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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

X-rays are waves of electromagnetic radiation that are used to create images of organs and other structures inside the body. X-rays have a very short wavelength. As they penetrate the body, they are absorbed in different amounts by different body tissues. For example, bones are dense and absorb X-rays very well, but soft tissues (skin, fat, muscle) allow more X-rays to pass through. The result is an X-ray shadow on a film or fluorescent screen, where images of bones appear white, while shadows of soft tissues appear as various shades of gray.

In some forms of X-rays, a chemical called contrast medium is given to the patient to help outline a specific body area on X-ray film. This chemical can be swallowed, given as an enema or injected into a vein. The contrast medium appears white on the X-ray film, and can produce a sharp outline of structures such as the digestive tract and the paths of blood vessels.

While X-rays themselves are painless, there may be some mild discomfort from a pin prick or from an enema if contrast medium is used. Some X-rays take less than a minute, while longer X-ray procedures may take an hour or more.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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