X-rays of the Skull
What is a skull X-ray?
X-rays use invisible electromagnetic energy beams to make images of the skull. Standard
X-rays are done for many reasons, including diagnosing tumors, infection, foreign
bodies, or bone injuries.
X-rays use external radiation to make images of the body, its organs, and other internal
structures to diagnose a problem. X-rays pass through body tissues onto specially
treated plates (similar to camera film). The more solid a structure is, the whiter
it appears on the film. Computers and digital media are now more commonly used in
place of films.
When the body undergoes X-rays, different parts of the body allow varying amounts
of the X-ray beams to pass through. Images are produced in degrees of light and dark,
depending on the amount of X-rays that penetrate the tissues. The soft tissues in
the body (such as blood, skin, fat, and muscle) allow most of the X-ray to pass through
and appear dark gray on the film. A bone or a tumor, which is denser than the soft
tissues, allows few of the X-rays to pass through and appears white on the X-ray.
At a break in a bone, the X-ray beam passes through the broken area and appears as
a dark line in the white bone.
While X-rays of the skull are not used as often as in the past, due to the use of
newer technologies such as CT scans and MRI, they are still helpful to look at the
bones of the skull for fractures and detecting other conditions of the skull and brain.
Bones of the skull
The skull, also called the cranium, is the bony structure of the head. Two sets of
bones comprise the skull:
All bones making up the skull are attached to each other by immovable joints, except
for the jaw bone, which is attached via a movable joint.
The cranium holds and protects the brain. It's made up of 8 bones. They are:
The skeleton of the face has 14 bones, which include those that make up the jaws,
cheeks, and nasal area.
Why might I need a skull X-ray?
X-rays of the skull may be done to diagnose fractures of the bones of the skull, birth
defects, infection, foreign bodies, pituitary tumors, and certain metabolic and endocrine
disorders that cause bone defects of the skull. Skull X-rays may also be used to find
tumors, check the nasal sinuses, and detect calcifications within the brain.
There may be other reasons for your healthcare provider to recommend an X-ray of the
skull. Be sure to talk with your healthcare provider about the reason for you skull
What are the risks of a skull X-ray?
You may want to ask your healthcare provider about the amount of radiation used during
the procedure and the risks related to your particular situation. It's a good idea
to keep a record of your radiation exposure, such as previous X-rays and other scans
, so that you can inform your healthcare providers. Risks associated with radiation
exposure may be related to the cumulative number of X-ray exams or treatments over
If you are pregnant or think you may be, tell your provider. Radiation exposure during
pregnancy may lead to birth defects. If it's necessary for you to have a skull X-ray,
special precautions will be made to minimize the radiation exposure to the fetus.
There may be other risks depending upon your specific medical condition. Be sure to
discuss any concerns you have with your healthcare provider before the procedure.
How do I get ready for a skull X-ray?
Your healthcare provider will explain the procedure to you and ask if you have questions.
Generally, no preparation, such as fasting or sedation, is required.
Tell the radiologic technologist:
If you are pregnant or think you could be.
If you have a prosthetic (artificial) eye, because the prosthesis can create a confusing
shadow on an X-ray of the skull.
Based upon your medical condition, your provider may request other specific preparation.
What happens during a skull X-ray?
An X-ray may be done on an outpatient basis or as part of your stay in a hospital.
Procedures may vary depending on your condition and your healthcare provider's practices.
Generally, an X-ray procedure of the skull follows this process:
You will be asked to remove any clothing, jewelry, hairpins, eyeglasses, hearing aids,
or other metal objects that might interfere with the procedure.
If you are asked to remove clothing, you will be given a gown to wear.
You will be positioned on an X-ray table that carefully places the part of the skull
that is to be x-rayed between the X-ray machine and a cassette containing the X-ray
film or digital plate.
Body parts not being imaged are covered with a lead apron (shield) to avoid exposure
to the X-rays.
The radiologic technologist will ask you to hold still in a certain position for a
few moments while the X-ray exposure is made.
If the X-ray is being done to find an injury, special care will be taken to prevent
further injury. For example, a neck brace may be applied if a cervical spine fracture
Some skull X-ray studies may require several different positions. It's very important
to remain completely still while the exposure is made, as any movement may distort
the image and even require another X-ray to be done to get a clear image of the body
part in question.
The X-ray beam will be focused on the area to be photographed.
The radiologic technologist will step behind a protective window while the image is
While the X-ray procedure itself causes no pain, moving the body part being examined
may cause some discomfort or pain, particularly in the case of a recent injury or
invasive procedure such as surgery. The radiologic technologist will use all possible
comfort measures and complete the procedure as quickly as possible to minimize any
discomfort or pain.
What happens after a skull X-ray?
Generally, there is no special type of care following an X-ray of the skull. However,
your healthcare provider may give you other instructions after the procedure, depending
on your particular situation.
Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:
The name of the test or procedure
The reason you are having the test or procedure
What results to expect and what they mean
The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
What the possible side effects or complications are
When and where you are to have the test or procedure
Who will do the test or procedure and what that person’s qualifications are
What would happen if you did not have the test or procedure
Any alternative tests or procedures to think about
When and how you will get the results
Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or problems
How much you will have to pay for the test or procedure