A chest x ray is a procedure used to evaluate organs and structures within the chest for symptoms of disease. Chest x rays include views of the lungs, heart, small portions of the gastrointestinal tract, thyroid gland, and the bones of the chest area. X rays are a form of radiation that can penetrate the body and produce an image on an x-ray film. Another name for the film produced by x rays is radiograph.
Chest x rays are ordered for a wide variety of diagnostic purposes. In fact, this is probably the most frequently performed type of x ray. In some cases, chest x rays are ordered for a single check of an organ's condition, and at other times, serial x rays are ordered to compare to previous studies. Some common reasons for chest x rays include the following.
Chest films are frequently ordered to diagnose or rule out pneumonia. One type, tuberculosis, can be observed on chest x rays, as can cardiac disease and damage to the ribs or lungs. Other pulmonary disorders such as pneumothorax (presence of air or gas in the chest cavity outside the lungs) or emphysema may be detected or evaluated through the use of chest x ray.
A chest x ray may be ordered by a physician to check for possible tumors of the lungs, lymphoid tissue, or bones of the thorax. These may be primary tumors, or the areas in which cancer originates in the body. X rays also check for secondary spread of cancer from another organ to the chest.
While less sensitive than echocardiography , chest x ray can be used to check for disorders such as congestive heart failure or pulmonary edema.
Chest x rays are used to see foreign bodies that may have been swallowed or inhaled, and to evaluate response to treatment for various diseases. Often the chest x ray is also used to verify correct placement of chest tubes or catheters. Chest x rays can be used to check for fluid surrounding the lungs (pleural effusion).
Routine chest x rays consist of two views, the frontal view (referred to as posterioranterior or PA) and the lateral (side) view. It is preferred that the patient stand for this exam, particularly when studying collection of fluid in the lungs.
During the actual time of exposure, the technologist will ask the patient to hold his or her breath. It is very important in taking a chest x ray to ensure there is no motion that could detract from the quality and sharpness of the film image. The procedure will only take a few minutes and the time patients must hold their breath is a matter of a few seconds.
The chest x ray may be performed in a physician's office or referred to an outpatient radiology facility or hospital radiology department. In some cases, particularly for patients who cannot get out of bed, a portable chest x ray may be taken. Portable films are sometimes of poorer quality than those taken with permanent equipment, but are the best choice for some patients or situations when the patient cannot be moved or properly positioned for the chest x ray. Patients confined to bed may be placed in as upright a position as possible to get a clear picture, particularly of chest fluid.
There is no advance preparation necessary for chest x rays. Once the patient arrives in the exam area, a hospital gown will replace all clothing on the upper body and all jewelry must be removed.
No aftercare is required by patients who have chest x rays.
The only risk associated with chest x ray is minimal exposure to radiation, particularly for pregnant women and children. Those patients should use protective lead aprons during the procedure. Technologists are cautioned to check carefully possible dislodging of any tubes or monitors in the chest area from the patient's placement during the exam.
A radiologist, or physician specially trained in the technique and interpretation of x rays, will evaluate the results. A normal chest x ray will show normal structures for the age and medical history of the patient. Findings, whether normal or abnormal, will be provided to the referring physician in the form of a written report.
Abnormal findings on chest x rays are used in conjunction with a physician's physical exam findings, patient medical history, and other diagnostic tests including laboratory tests to reach a final diagnosis. For many diseases, chest x rays are more effective when compared to previous chest x-ray studies. The patient is asked to help the radiology facility in locating previous chest radiographs from other facilities.
Pneumonia shows up on radiographs as patches and irregular areas of density (from fluid in the lungs). If the bronchi (air passages in the lungs which are usually not visible) can be seen, a diagnosis of bronchial pneumonia may be made. Shifts or shadows in the hila (lung roots) may indicate enlarged lymph nodes of a malignancy. Widening of the spaces between ribs and increased lucency of the lung fields suggests emphysema. Other pulmonary diseases may also be detected or suspected through chest x ray.
In nearly all patients with lung cancer, some sort of abnormality can be seen on a chest radiograph. Hilar masses (enlargements at that part of the lungs where vessels and nerves enter) are one of the more common symptoms as are abnormal masses and fluid buildup on the outside surface of the lungs or surrounding areas. Interstitial lung disease, which is a large category of disorders, many of which are related to exposure of substances (such as asbestos fibers), may be detected on a chest x ray as increased prominence of the interstitial pattern, often in the lower portions of the lungs.
Congestive heart failure and other cardiac diseases may be indicated on the view of a heart and lung in a chest radiograph. Fractures of the sternum and ribs are sometimes detected as breaks on the chest x ray, though often dedicated bone films are needed. In some instances, the radiologist's view of the diaphragm may indicate an abdominal problem. Foreign bodies that may have been swallowed or inhaled can usually be located by the radiologist, as they will look different from any other tissue or structure in the chest. Serial chest x rays may be ordered to track changes over a period of time, usually to evaluate response to therapy of a malignancy.
American Lung Association. 1740 Broadway, New York, NY 10019. (800) 586–4872. http://www.lungusa.org .
Emphysema Anonymous, Inc. P.O. Box 3224, Seminole FL 34642. (813) 391–9977.
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. P.O. Box 30105, Bethesda, MD 20824–0105. (301) 251–1222. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov .
Teresa Norris, RN Lee Shratter, MD