Your health
By Michael Warren 

Most of us have had an X-ray at some time in our lives; yet probably few of us understand its amazing contribution to medicine and our health. 

The X-ray machine was invented by a German physician, Wilhelm Roentgen, and was at first considered mysterious and magical. 

A glass tube with an electrical current passing through it produced invisible rays that could penetrate human tissue. 

The machines were used with little caution, but safety measures were introduced from the 1930s. Today, emphasis is placed on safety and protection both for the patient and the health care workers. 

There is little danger of overexposure for the patient. A minimal amount of X-rays is used for diagnosis and computers enhance the image. 

If used for treatment, a much higher dosage is used because the purpose of radiation therapy is to destroy such things as malignant cancer cells. 

If you require an X-ray, you could meet one or more specialists. Radiologists supervise and interpret the films taken during each procedure. Radiation oncologists specialize in cancer treatment. The specially trained individual who actually takes the X-ray is the radiology technician, and the radiation physicist ensures that the equipment is safe and in working order. 

There are several newer techniques. 

The fluoroscopy, similar to a movie, is especially helpful for determining the function of internal organs. Barium enemas are used to examine the gastrointestinal tract. The patient swallows barium, which is then tracked by fluoroscopy. Radiologists can also use fluoroscopy to look at blood vessels, the heart, kidneys and the urinary tract. 

The CT scan (computed tomography) uses a computer to enhance the intensity of the X-rays, thus reducing the amount of electromagnetic radiation needed. 

Ultrasound uses sound waves to bounce off the internal walls of the body. There is no risk in this procedure, which has many uses, including the evaluation of developing babies while still in the mother’s womb. 

Magnetic resonance imaging also does not use X-rays, but produces excellent pictures of the brain and internal organs with little or no risk to the patient. 

Although the X-ray machine has been fine-tuned since Roentgen’s day, both the way in which it works and its usefulness in the diagnosis and treatment of illness have remained unchanged. Its workings may remain a mystery to you, but there is no need to fear it. Be grateful it exists and, of course, respect for any complicated piece of equipment is always to your advantage. 

Dr. Michael M. Warren is Ashbel Smith Professor of Surgery in the division of urology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.