What Is a Neck X-Ray?
A neck X-ray, also known as a cervical spine X-ray, is an X-ray
image taken of your cervical vertebrae. This includes the seven bones of your
neck that encase and protect the top section of your spinal cord.
A neck X-ray also shows the surrounding structures, including the:
- vocal cords
- trachea, or windpipe
- epiglottis, or the flap of tissue that covers
your windpipe when you swallow
An X-ray is a form of radiation that passes through your body to
expose a piece of film, forming an image of your body.
Dense structures like bones appear white on X-rays because very
little radiation can pass through them to expose the film on the other side.
Soft tissues are less dense. They include:
- blood vessels
That means more radiation can pass through them. These structures
will appear dark gray on the X-ray image.
Why Is a Neck X-Ray Performed?
Your doctor may request a neck X-ray if you have a neck injury or
persistent numbness, pain, or weakness in your upper extremities.
The neck is particularly vulnerable to injury, especially in
falls, car accidents, and sports, where the muscles and ligaments of the neck
are forced to move outside their normal range. If the neck is dislocated or
fractured, the spinal cord may also be damaged. Neck injury caused by a sudden
jerking of the head is commonly called whiplash.
Your doctor will check the X-ray image for the following:
- fractured or broken bones
- swelling in or near your airway
- thinning of the neck bones due to osteoporosis
- bone tumors or cysts
- chronic wear on the disks and joints of your
neck, which is called cervical spondylosis
- joints that are pushed out of their normal
positions, which are called dislocations
- abnormal growths on the bones, or bone spurs
- spinal deformities
- swelling around the vocal cords, which is called
- inflammation of the tissue that covers your
windpipe, which is called epiglottitis
- a foreign object that is lodged in your throat
- enlarged tonsils and adenoids
What Are the Risks of a Neck X-Ray?
X-rays are very safe and generally have no side effects or
complications. The amount of radiation used in a single X-ray is quite small. If
you have many X-rays, your risk of illness from radiation exposure increases.
Children and unborn babies are especially sensitive to radiation.
Tell your doctor if you’re pregnant so that precautions can be taken during the
procedure. If you’re pregnant and must have a neck X-ray, you’ll be given a
lead vest to cover your abdomen to keep radiation from harming your fetus.
Children will also be given a lead shield to cover their abdomens to protect
their reproductive organs from the radiation.
How Is a Neck X-Ray Performed?
A radiology technologist will perform the X-ray. It will take
place in a hospital radiology department or your doctor’s office. You’ll be
asked to remove any clothing and jewelry on your upper body. Metal can
interfere with the X-ray equipment.
You’ll be asked to lie down flat on the X-ray table, and the
X-ray machine will be moved over your neck area. You must be very still and
hold your breath for a few moments while the image is taken so that it won’t be
blurry. The radiology tech will probably ask you to lie in several different
positions so that the X-ray can be taken from multiple angles. The procedure is
painless and generally takes 15 minutes or less.
What Do the Results Mean?
The radiology technologist will develop the X-rays and send them
to your doctor within a few days.
If your bones and tissues appear normal on the X-ray images, you probably don’t
have bone spurs, spinal deformities, or cervical spondylosis. If any of these
appear on your X-rays, your doctor will discuss your treatment options with you.
If your doctor orders a neck X-ray, it will probably be a
painless process with no side effects. Discuss any concerns you have with your
doctor. After your X-ray images are processed, your doctor will be able to
determine if you have an injury or other complications that require treatment.