X‑rays, discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen over one hundred years ago, continue to play a significant role in revolutionizing the health care industry by providing noninvasive methods for medical practitioners to more correctly diagnose and treat illnesses. However, the benefits of x-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans have led to a medical praxis that relies heavily on radiation. This affects not only the patients receiving x-rays but also the technicians administering the tests.

Radiation exposure accumulates over a lifetime

Overall, the kinds of x-rays used in dentistry are generally lower in radiation than those used in other medical fields. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), the effective dose of radiation from dental radiographs is just 2.5 percent of that in other medical radiographs and fluoroscopy procedures. Despite the lower dose, radiation exposure is cumulative, comprising an occupational hazard for dental hygienists and techs who administer x-rays on a regular basis. It's important to be aware of the risks of radiation exposure and take steps to limit that exposure.

Healthcare workers, including those in the dental industry, should receive no more than 50 milisieverts (mSv) of ionizing radiation yearly. (A standard intraoral x-ray delivers 0.005mSv of ionizing radiation to the patient receiving it) Over a lifetime, an individual should receive a maximum of 10 mSv multiplied by the individual's age in years. In order to accurately calculate exposure and minimize risk, the ADA recommends the use of personal dosimeters.

Recommendations for limiting radiation exposure

The ADA includes a number of recommendations for limiting hygienists' and techs' radiation exposure. These include:

  • Education about the effects of radiation exposure and the steps to limit it
  • Implementing a radiation protection program
  • Using barrier walls and shields which physically block radiation
  • Using personal dosimeters such as Instadose to accurately measure and track cumulative radiation exposure
  • Using radiography only when necessary and following the ALARA principle (As Low as Reasonably Achievable) to minimize exposure

In comparison to other healthcare sectors, dental hygienists and technicians have comparatively low exposure to radiation. Despite this, it is critical to be aware of exposure and to follow best practices to limit exposure as much as possible.