A chest x-ray is a procedure that produces images of the inside of the chest. It helps doctors assess the condition of the lungs, heart and chest wall. The process of producing a chest x-ray is fast and easy, so it can is especially useful in evaluating injuries in emergency situations. It is also one of the first procedures performed to evaluate symptoms such as chest pain, a persistent cough or difficulty breathing.
What are Chest X-rays Used to Diagnose?
Doctors use chest X-rays to provide information that helps with the diagnosis or assessment of a variety of conditions. They include:
- The condition of the heart. Changes or abnormalities in the size or shape of the heart can indicate heart valve problems, heart failure or fluid around the heart.
- The health of the lungs. Chest X-rays can reveal or provide details on a collapsed lung, pneumonia and other infections, cancer, emphysema, cystic fibrosis and other conditions that affect the lungs.
- The condition of certain blood vessels in the chest. The outlines of large blood vessels like the aorta, pulmonary veins and arteries can be seen in a chest X-ray. Providers use the x-ray to detect issues like aneurysms or other problems.
- Bone fractures. Fractures to the spine or ribs, and other problems with those bones, can be viewed with a chest X-ray.
- Positioning of a pacemaker or other device. Chest X-rays allow doctors to assess the position and functioning of pacemakers and defibrillators (devices that keep the heart rhythm normal) as well as catheters (tubes used to deliver medication or for dialysis).
- Calcium deposits. The presence of calcium in the heart or blood vessels can point to damaged heart muscle or valves and the associated increased risk of a heart attack. In the lungs, calcium is often an indicator of past infections.
How is a Chest X-ray Performed?
A chest X-ray is a quick and painless procedure. In most cases, the patient stands against a recording plate and a technician takes images of the chest from two perspectives: one from the back and another from the side. Chest X-rays are ready for review by a doctor almost immediately.
A specially trained physician called a radiologist then evaluates the images and produces a report about the findings. The referring doctor uses this report to prescribe treatment or to confirm that no treatment is needed.
X-rays are very safe. However, if you are pregnant or believe you might be pregnant, it is important to let your care team know before a chest X-ray is performed.