Skeletal X-rays (Radiography)

X-rays are passed through the bones or skeletal region being examined, producing images of these structures on a special type of film. When bone radiography is used to examine the spinal column alone, it is termed a spinal x-ray. Examination of the entire skeleton is known as a skeletal survey.

Purpose of Bone X-ray

  • To detect bone fractures and other abnormalities after a traumatic injury
  • To detect primary bone cancer or cancer that has metastasized (spread) to the bone
  • To detect infectious diseases of the bones, including the spinal vertebrae
  • To evaluate the intervertebral disc spaces in the lower spine
  • To assess abnormal curvature of the spine (scoliosis), degenerative disease of the spinal structures, and other spinal deformities
  • To diagnose different types of arthritis
  • To detect infections, abnormal bone growths and changes in bone caused by metabolic conditions
  • To make sure of proper alignment and bone stabilization following treatment for a fracture
  • To guide spine repair/fusion, joint replacement, fracture reductions, and other types of orthopedic surgery
  • To detect foreign objects in soft tissues and bones

Who Performs Bone X-rays

Special Concerns about Bone X-rays

  • Pregnant women should not undergo this test because exposure to ionizing radiation may harm the fetus.

Before the Bone X-rays

  • Remove any jewelry or metal objects before the test. If necessary, you will be asked to disrobe and put on a hospital gown.
  • If you are having a spinal x-ray and have long hair, clip your hair up beforehand so that it does not hang over your chest or shoulders.
  • If you are having a skull x-ray, be sure to remove your glasses, contact lenses, hairpins, and dentures.
  • In some cases, a protective lead shield may be placed over parts of the body not being scanned in order to minimize exposure to radiation.
  • Tell your doctor if you are pregnant or you may be pregnant.

What You Experience during Bone X-rays

  • A technician will position you in front of an x-ray machine—either sitting, standing, or lying down on a table, depending on which bone(s) are being examined.
  • You will be asked to remain perfectly still and hold your breath while the x-ray is being taken. Any movement can distort the image.
  • You may be instructed to assume different positions as additional x-rays are obtained from different angles or of different bones, depending on the purpose of the test.
  • The test usually takes 5 to 10 minutes. A full skeletal survey may take up to 1 hour.

Risks and Complications of Bone X-rays

  • X-ray exams involve minimal exposure to radiation.

After Bone X-rays

  • If the test is elective, you may return home and resume your normal activities.

Results of Bone X-rays

  • A doctor will examine the x-ray films for evidence of any abnormalities.
  • If a definitive diagnosis can be made, appropriate treatment will be initiated, depending on the specific problem.
  • In many cases, additional tests, such as a skeletal MRI, a CT scan, or a bone scan, may be required for further evaluation.


The Johns Hopkins Consumer Guide to Medical Tests

Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D., Medical Editor

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 10 Jan 2012

Last Modified: 10 Jan 2012