Link Between Dental X-ray and Increased Risk of Cancer


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Dr Sukanya Goswami
Sukanya has done BDS. She is a dentist, a blogger, an extrovert, and a travel enthusiast. She is also a spiritual believer. When she is not working, you can find her reading books.

The safety of radiation exposure from dental x-rays has always been a controversial topic. Many scientists and researchers have proven that dental x-rays are safe and cannot cause potential harm to the patients.

However, some studies have linked the radiation exposure from dental x-ray to increased risk of cancer formation. Exposure to ionizing x-ray radiation is thought to be the most significant environmental risk factor for the development of non-malignant meningioma and thyroid cancer. Keeping the new study in mind, it is essential to understand that there is no evidence or records to prove this theory. Extensive research-based records are necessary to establish the link between the two.

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The ADA stands firm on its conclusion that dental x-rays emit minimal radiation. However, it recommends dental patients to get routine dental x-rays every two to three years unless necessary. Let’s continue to read the article and unfold the facts about the association between dental x-rays and increased risk of cancer development.

What are dental x-rays?

Dental x-rays are specialized diagnostic tools that help the dental professional to address some of the potential dental conditions of the mouth in a detailed form. Dental x-rays capture a selected portion of the mouth on a sensor or film by exposing the mouth to a controlled burst of focused x-ray radiation.

Typically, the radiation penetrates through the oral tissues, and an image is captured in the film. Hard tissues such as the teeth and bone appear light as they absorb more radiation. Dental infections, tooth decay, and bone loss appear as dark spots. (1) Usually, dental x-rays are used for the following purposes –

  • Diagnose various dental conditions such as tooth decay or gum disease
  • Assess the progression of bone loss
  • Identify dental abscess or cyst
  • Monitor the growth, development, and eruption of teeth in children
  • Assess the quality of bone for implant placement

What is the link between dental x-ray and the risk of cancer development?

The radiation level used in a traditional dental x-ray is extremely low. However, some studies have shown a link between dental x-rays and certain forms of thyroid and brain cancer, such as gliomas and meningiomas. (2)

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A study was performed on 75,494 radiology technicians for over ten years. The technicians were asked to fill a periodic questionnaire and self-report the medical information. It was revealed that around 0.03% of the radiology technicians developed thyroid cancer over time. (3) Some of the common facts associated with this link are stated below –

  • Researchers think that the risk of cancer development may be due to increased surveillance, screening, and over-diagnosis.

The thyroid gland is located in the neck while the meninges cover the brain and spinal cord. Both of these organs are highly radiosensitive and are exposed during the dental x-ray. This is why even a low dose of diagnostic radiation such as that of a dental x-ray, is overlooked as a potential hazard for these organs.

  • More research-based records and evidence are required to prove that dental x-rays are the sole cause of cancer development. The studies conducted did not include individual organ dose and age during exposure. Therefore, the results are inconclusive.

A newly published study reported that people who had yearly taken bitewing x-rays were found to have a 40-90% greater risk of meningioma. However, this study couldn’t prove the cause-effect relationship. (4)

Are there any alternatives to x-ray?

Typically, there is no other advanced technology that can replace a dental x-ray. However, the use of digital x-rays may significantly reduce radiation exposure. Moreover, MRI scans may be used depending on the type of health condition. (5) Ultrasounds are an excellent alternative to conventional body x-rays. However, ultrasounds have not proven useful in the field of dentistry.

When should you get a dental x-ray?

Dental x-rays should only be taken in case of severe dental diseases. The American Dental Association has declared to its members that dental x-rays must only be ordered when necessary. Such measures reduces radiation exposure. Moreover, the ADA has implemented the use of lead apron, thyroid collar, and fastest film speeds or a digital x-ray. (6)

Often, the dentist can detect dental diseases like tooth decay and gum disease based on visual and physical examination alone. Therefore, the need for an x-ray should be evaluated and taken only when necessary. The ADA recommends healthy adults to receive routine dental x-ray every two to three years instead of every year unless symptoms suggest the need for imaging.

Take away message

X-rays are an essential part of a dental diagnosis. It has been clinically proven that dental x-rays expose the patient to extremely low levels of radiation. However, long term studies have revealed that dental x-ray exposure for several years may increase the risk of cancer development.

The thyroid gland and meninges covering the brain and spinal cord are most commonly affected as they frequently get exposed during a dental x-ray. These studies have made speculations based on the patient’s self-report and recollection. Therefore, a direct physical connection has not been proven to support this study.

To protect the patients from radiation exposure, ADA recommends switching routine x-ray examination from yearly to once in two or three years. Moreover, protective measures like the use of lead aprons and thyroid collars are made mandatory.

The innovation of digital x-rays and scans have contributed to further reducing radiation exposure. If you are skeptical about getting a dental x-ray, talk to your dentist if you have concerns about the risk.

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