Dental X-Rays: Our Friends

May 7, 2012

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A study published last month in Cancer, a scientific journal of the American Cancer Society (ACS), associates annual or more frequent dental X-rays with an increased risk of developing meningioma, the most commonly diagnosed brain tumor. This type of tumor is usually not malignant, yet because the study has received widespread media coverage, we deem it significant enough to discuss it.

In their study researchers interviewed 2,783 people (about half of whom had been diagnosed with meningioma). All, an average age of 57, were asked to recall their history of dental X-rays going back to childhood. The American Dental Association, in reviewing the study, notes it is the weakest type of epidemiology, a “case control” study. The results can be unreliable because of what scientists call “recall bias.” People with a tumor or any other unwanted outcome are far more likely to remember that they had X-rays or pesticide exposure, cell phone use or anything that might be suspected of causing the problem.

“The strongest thing you can say about this study is that there is a suggestion of a link between dental X-rays and meningioma,” says Dr. Otis W. Brawley, scientific director of the ACS. A related story pointed out that the study was observational in nature, meaning it can show an association but not necessarily cause-and-effect.

So what should our patients do? “Our take home message is don’t panic. Don’t stop going to the dentist,” says the lead author of the study Dr. Elizabeth Claus. Why? Consider, first, the observational nature of the study and, secondly, that dental X-rays are valuable in helping dentists detect and treat oral health problems at an early stage. Many oral diseases cannot be detected on the basis of a visual and physical exam alone. X-rays are invaluable in providing information about a patient’s oral health such as early-stage cavities, gum diseases, infections, and some types of tumors. And, lastly, the amount of radiation in dental X-rays has gone down significantly over the years, thanks to factors such as the improved speed of X-ray film and, more recently, the advent of digital X-ray technology.

Our adult patients and parents of patients are encouraged to talk to us at about why you are getting X-rays and steps we take to minimize any adverse effects.

You may enjoy studying the general information about dental X-rays posted on ADA.org.

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