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Electromagnetic spectrum

A set of waves that travel through space and air. They include radio, microwaves, visible light, X-rays and gamma rays.

Radiotherapy

Treatment of disease using X-rays or radioactive substances which kill cells

Radiation

The emission of heat, light or other electromagnetic waves.

Cancer

A mass of abnormal cells which keep multiplying in an uncontrolled way.

Tumour

A swelling made up of a mass of abnormal cells which keep multiplying in an uncontrolled way.

1895: X-rays – the start of medical imaging

X-rays were discovered in 1895 by the German Physicist Wilhelm Roentgen. He was studying cathode rays produced by a recently-invented piece of equipment called a Crooke's tube when he noticed that a fluorescent screen across the room started to glow.

The start of medical imaging

An x-radiograph produced in 1895 by Roentgen of his wife's hand
(Wellcome Images)

The glow appeared to be caused by some unknown rays coming from the Crooke's tube. He tried to block these rays with cardboard but found that they passed straight through it. Amazingly, if he put his hand between the tube and the screen, he could see an image of the bones in his hand. He named this new radiation X-rays and immediately realised how important his discovery would be to the world of medicine.

We are now familiar with atoms, protons, neutrons and electrons but when Roentgen discovered his mysterious rays the structure of the atom was unknown. For this fantastic discovery, Roentgen received the first Nobel prize in Physics in 1901.Today, the use of X-rays is common in hospitals and dentists surgeries all over the world.

X-rays

We now understand X-rays to be part of the electromagnetic spectrum with a very high energy and short wavelength.

Their high energy means that X-rays can pass through skin and muscle. They are absorbed by dense tissues like cartilage and bone. This produces an image on photographic film which can show damage hidden to the naked eye.

Modern scanners

A modern development of the X-ray is found in CT scanners. Computerised tomography (or CT) scanners use several beams of X-rays simultaneously from different angles. Detectors measure the amount of each beam that is absorbed in the body and the data is fed into a computer that can build up a virtual, three-dimensional model of the area being examined. CT scans are very sophisticated and can be used to look for damage in much more than bone. They are often used to diagnose and monitor conditions and locate tumours before radiotherapy.

From cancers to airport check-in

X-rays can be used to treat disorders like cancers. In this case, a radiotherapist carefully calculates the dose of X-rays targeted onto the tumour inside the body. These X-rays are over 150 times stronger than those used to in X-radiographs and kill the cancer cells in the tumour.

Low energy X-rays are now widely used to see inside baggage in airports and other areas where security is important.

Question

Click to see if you can identify the parts of the body shown in the X-ray.

1.
chest
pelvis
humerus
patella
chest
The x-ray shows the ribs and collar bones. The light area underneath the ribs is the abdomen (stomach and liver). The breast bone is the light area in the centre of the ribs. The heart is just below it.
pelvis
Correct answer is chest. The x-ray shows the ribs and collar bones. The light area underneath the ribs is the abdomen (stomach and liver). The breast bone is the light area in the centre of the ribs. The heart is just below it.
humerus
Correct answer is chest. The x-ray shows the ribs and collar bones. The light area underneath the ribs is the abdomen (stomach and liver). The breast bone is the light area in the centre of the ribs. The heart is just below it.
patella
Correct answer is chest. The x-ray shows the ribs and collar bones. The light area underneath the ribs is the abdomen (stomach and liver). The breast bone is the light area in the centre of the ribs. The heart is just below it.
2.
chest
pelvis
humerus
patella
chest
Correct answer is pelvis. The x-ray shows the lower back, pelvis and thigh bones.
pelvis
The x-ray shows the lower back, pelvis and thigh bones.
humerus
Correct answer is pelvis. The x-ray shows the lower back, pelvis and thigh bones.
patella
Correct answer is pelvis. The x-ray shows the lower back, pelvis and thigh bones.