Like most Americans my family and I find ourselves making bi-annual trips to the dentist. I have often asked myself, how often should my children be exposed to dental x-rays, and does the risk from radiation outweigh those from cavities? Many dentists advocate yearly x-ray exams for children. If you are like me, you probably have wondered to yourself about the safety of these x-rays. Typically, when administering these exams they often drape a lead-lined apron over your child’s body to protect their vital organs. Well, all but one: their brain.
A recent study by Elizabeth Claus, of Yale University, just published in Cancer, addresses this very issue. Dr Claus thinks she has identified, in those who have had dental x-rays often, a significant rise in the admittedly small risk of developing a brain tumor.
In the Western World, five men in every 200,000, and twice as many women, develop tumors called meningiomas that affect the membranes surrounding the brain. Meningiomas account for a third of primary brain tumors. Only about 2% of them are malignant, but non-malignant does not mean non-dangerous. Even a “benign” meningioma can kill. Around 30% do so within five years of diagnosis. Symptoms can include seizures and blindness, and treatment may involve surgery, chemotherapy or, ironically, radiotherapy.
Dr. Claus concluded from her study that there was an apparent link between those participants that developed meningiomas and the number of “traditional bitewing” x-rays that they had received. The study concluded that people who had had a meningioma were more than twice as likely to have had at least one bitewing x-ray. And the more bitewings they had been given, the greater that likelihood was.
Panorex x-rays which provide a panoramic picture of a child’s mouth, and which are often used for determining the need for braces proved to be even riskier. The study concluded that children who had been given a panorex x-ray under the age of 10 were 4.9 times as likely to develop a meningioama in their lifetime.
As always the conclusions from these studies is up for debate. Many dentists now use digital x-rays, which expose the patient to far lower levels of radiation than traditional x-rays. For my family, digital x-rays are a must when choosing a Dental Professional. But the question still remains, how often are x-rays needed?
Guidelines from the American Dental Association state that healthy adults should have a bitewing x-ray no more than once every two or three years, and that there is little reason to x-ray patients who do not exhibit symptoms. These are policies which Dr Claus describes as “quite reasonable”. Dr Claus’s study provides a timely reminder that x-rays, of any type, are dangerous, and that dentists should use them sparingly.
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