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X-Ray Exam: Elbow

What It Is

An elbow X-ray is a safe and painless test that uses a small amount of radiation to take a picture of a person's elbow. During the examination, an X-ray machine sends a beam of radiation through the elbow, and an image is recorded on special X-ray film or a computer. This image shows soft tissues and bones of the elbow, including the humerus (the upper bone of the elbow joint), and the radius and ulna (the lower bones of the elbow joint).

The X-ray image is black and white. Dense structures that block the passage of the X-ray beam through the body, such as bones, appear white on the image. Softer body tissues, such as fat and muscles, allow the X-ray beam to pass through them and appear darker.

An X-ray technician in the radiology department of a hospital or doctor’s office performs the X-ray exam. Three pictures are usually taken of the elbow: one from the front (anteroposterior, or AP, view), one from the side (lateral view), and one at an angle (oblique view).

Why It's Done

An elbow X-ray can help find the cause of common signs and symptoms such as pain, tenderness, swelling, or a deformity. It can also help to detect broken bones or a dislocated joint. After a broken elbow has been put in a cast, an X-ray can help determine if the bones are in satisfactory alignment.

If surgery is required, an X-ray may be taken to assess the results after the operation. Also, an X-ray can help detect cysts, tumors, or other diseases in the bones, including later stages of bone infections.

Preparation

An elbow X-ray doesn't require special preparation. Your child may be asked to remove some clothing, jewelry, or metal objects that might interfere with the image.

If your daughter is pregnant, it’s important to tell the X-ray technician or her doctor. X-rays are usually avoided during pregnancy because there’s a small chance the radiation could harm the developing baby. If the X-ray is necessary, precautions can be taken to protect the fetus.

Procedure

This is a quick procedure. Although it may take 15 minutes or longer from start to finish, the actual exposure time to radiation is extremely short, often less than a second.

Your child will be asked to enter a special room where X-rays are done, which will most likely contain a table and a large X-ray machine hanging from the ceiling. Parents are usually able to come in with their child to provide reassurance. If you stay in the room while the X-ray is being done, you'll be asked to wear a lead apron to protect certain parts of your body from radiation. Your child will also be protected with a lead shield placed over the reproductive organs.

If your child is in the hospital and can't easily be brought to the radiology department, a portable X-ray machine can be brought to the bedside. Portable X-rays are sometimes used in emergency departments, intensive care units (ICUs), and operating rooms.

The technician will position your child's elbow on the table and then step behind a wall or into the next room to operate the machine. Three X-rays are usually taken (from the back, from the side, and at an angle), so the technician will come back to reposition the arm for each X-ray. Rarely, another view or two might be needed.

elbow_xray_illustration

Occasionally doctors request an X-ray of the opposite elbow as well (the uninjured side), for comparison. Older kids will be asked to stay still for a few seconds while the X-ray is taken; infants may require gentle restraint. Keeping the arm still is important to prevent blurring of the X-ray image.

What to Expect

Your child won't feel anything as the X-ray is taken. The X-ray room may feel cool due to the air conditioning used to maintain the equipment.

The positions required for the X-rays may feel uncomfortable, but they need to be held for only a few seconds. If your child has an injury and can't hold the required position, the technician can help to find another position that's easier on your child. Babies often cry in the X-ray room, especially if they're restrained, but this won't interfere with the procedure.

After the X-rays are taken, you and your child will be asked to wait a few minutes while the images are processed. If they are blurred or unclear, the X-ray may need to be redone.

Getting the Results

A radiologist (a doctor specially trained in reading and interpreting X-ray images) will evaluate them. The radiologist will send a report to your child's doctor, who will discuss the results with you and explain what they mean.

In an emergency, the results of an X-ray can be available within a short period of time. Otherwise, results are usually ready in 1-2 days. In most cases, results can't be given directly to the patient or family at the time of the test.

Risks

In general, X-rays are very safe. Although there is some risk to the body with any exposure to radiation, the amount used in an elbow X-ray is very small and isn't considered dangerous. It's important to know that radiologists use the minimum amount of radiation required to get the best results.

Developing babies are more sensitive to radiation and are at greater risk for harm, so if your daughter is pregnant, make sure to inform her doctor and the X-ray technician.

Helping Your Child

You can help your child prepare for an elbow X-ray by explaining the test in simple terms before the procedure. It may help to explain that getting an X-ray is much like posing for a picture.

You can describe the room and the equipment that will be used, and reassure your child that you'll be right there for support. For older kids, be sure to explain the importance of keeping still while the X-ray is taken so it won't have to be repeated.

If You Have Questions

If you have questions about why the X-ray is needed, speak with the doctor. You can also talk to the technician before the procedure.

Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: August 2011