Different Types of X-Rays Explained

X-rays are a powerful tool for identifying dental health issues and planning appropriate treatments.

Without X-rays, your dentist’s understanding of your teeth, jaw, and mouth would be limited to only what they can see with the naked eye. With X-rays, dentists can develop a much deeper picture of everything that’s going on inside your mouth. This allows them to address potential issues before they steamroll into more serious conditions and identify proper approaches for treatment. (To learn more about why dentists might order X-rays, check out this post.)

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While all dental X-rays help dentists in these general ways, they each serve slightly different functions. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the most common dental X-rays and the specific value they offer for your oral health.

A Brief Look at Common Dental X-Rays

There are two main categories of dental X-rays:

  • Intraoral X-rays, for which the X-ray sensor is inside the mouth. These are the most common type of dental X-ray today. They provide a high level of detail into the conditions of the jawbone, teeth, and the roots and bones that support the teeth
  • Extraoral X-rays, for which the X-ray sensor is outside the mouth. Their primary use is for examining the jaw and skull

Within these overarching categories, there are a variety of common dental X-rays. These include:

Bitewing X-rays

These intraoral X-rays allow your dentist to view sections of the upper and lower teeth together in a single frame. Each X-rays reveals the teeth from their crowns down to their supporting bones. They’re primarily used to assess the alignment of the upper and lower teeth, to identify any decay occurring between teeth, to monitor the fit of crowns and bridges or the state of fillings, and to reveal possible bone loss, gum disease, or infections.

Occlusal X-rays

Another form of intraoral X-rays, occlusal X-rays are used to examine the entire placement of teeth across the roof and/or floor of the mouth. They’re especially helpful for identifying extra teeth, impacted teeth, jaw fractures, cleft palates, cysts, abscesses, and growths.

Panoramic X-rays

As the name suggests, these extraoral X-rays take a broad view of your dental wellbeing by including the jaws, nasal area, sinuses, and teeth. They’re used primarily to reveal issues such as bone abnormalities, cysts, fractures, impacted teeth, infections, and tumors.

Periapical X-rays

This intraoral X-ray type is used to examine the entirety of a section of teeth, with views from the crowns down to the roots and bones that hold the teeth in place. They’re especially useful for identifying dental issues that are brewing below the gum line, such as abscesses, cysts, impacted teeth, tumors, and other conditions that may alter or affect the root and bone structure.

Sialograms

This is a rare type of extraoral X-ray that would be taken only if your dentist suspects you might have salivary gland issues (such as blockages in the glands). The process involves injecting dye into the salivary glands so they’re visible on X-ray film.

Tomograms

These extraoral X-rays are used for viewing parts of the mouth that are otherwise hard to see. They work by revealing a designated section of the mouth and blurring out all the other parts so that section comes into detailed focus.

Many people have a full set of dental X-rays taken once a year in order for their dentists to maintain a baseline understanding of their oral health (although some people may need to have X-rays taken more frequently). X-rays are an important part of maintaining your dental health, so talk to your dentist if you ever have questions or concerns about how they’re being put to use.