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X-Ray Exam: Elbow

Medically reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD

What's an X-Ray?

An X-ray is a safe and painless test that uses a small amount of radiation to make an image of bones, organs, and other parts of the body.

The X-ray image is black and white. Dense body parts, such as bones, block the passage of the X-ray beam through the body. These look white on the X-ray image. Softer body tissues, such as the skin and muscles, allow the X-ray beams to pass through them. They look darker on the image.

X-rays are commonly done in doctors’ offices, radiology departments, imaging centers, and dentists’ offices.

What's an Elbow X-Ray?

In an elbow X-ray, 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).

An X-ray technician will take pictures of the elbow: 

  • from the front (anteroposterior, or AP, view)
  • from the side (lateral view)
  • at an angle (oblique view)

Occasionally doctors request an X-ray of the opposite elbow as well (the uninjured side) for comparison.

An elbow X-ray is done while a child sits and places their elbow on the table. They should stay still for 2–3 seconds while each X-ray is taken so the images are clear. If an image is blurred, the X-ray technician might take another one.

Why Are Elbow X-Rays Done?

An elbow X-ray can help doctors find the cause of pain, tenderness, swelling, or a deformity. It can also check for broken bones or a dislocated joint. After a broken bone has been set, an X-ray can help show if the bones are aligned and if they have healed properly.

An X-ray can help doctors plan surgery, when needed, and check the results after it. It also can help detect cysts, tumors, or other diseases in the bones, including later stages of bone infections.

What if I Have Questions?

If you have questions about the elbow X-ray or what the results mean, talk to your doctor.

Medically reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: March 2022