Chest X-rays

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Chest X-rays produce images of your heart, lungs, blood vessels, ribs and the bones of your spine. If you go to your doctor or the emergency room with chest pain or shortness of breath, chest X-rays can help determine whether you have heart failure, a collapsed lung, pneumonia, broken ribs or air accumulating in the space surrounding a lung (pneumothorax).

Chest X-rays can also reveal fluid in your lungs or in the spaces surrounding your lungs, enlargement of your heart, pneumonia, emphysema, cancer and many other conditions. Some people have a series of chest X-rays done over time, to track whether a particular health problem is getting better or worse.

In the past, the X-ray was printed out on film. Now, almost all chest X-rays are digital files that are viewed and stored electronically.

Why is it done?

Chest X-rays are the most commonly performed radiographic exam. A chest X-ray is often among the first procedures you’ll undergo if your doctor suspects you have heart or lung disease.

A chest X-ray can show:

The condition of your lungs. Chest X-rays can detect cancer or infection in the lungs. They can also show chronic lung conditions, such as emphysema or cystic fibrosis, as well as complications related to these conditions.

Heart-related lung problems. Chest X-rays can reveal changes or abnormalities in your lungs that stem from heart problems. Fluid may accumulate in your lungs (pulmonary edema), for instance, as a result of congestive heart failure.

The size and outline of your heart. Changes in the size and shape of your heart may indicate a variety of conditions, such as heart failure, congenital heart disease, fluid around the heart (pericardial effusion), and problems with one or more of your heart valves.

Blood vessels. Because the outlines of the large vessels near your heart — the aorta and pulmonary arteries and veins — are visible on X-rays, they may reveal aortic aneurysms or other blood vessel problems, or congenital heart disease.

Calcium deposits. Chest X-rays can detect the presence of calcium in your heart or blood vessels. Its presence may indicate damage to your heart valves, coronary arteries, heart muscle or the protective sac that surrounds the heart. Calcium deposits in your lungs may be from an old, resolved infection or a more serious disease.

Postoperative changes. Chest X-rays are useful after you’ve had surgery in your chest, such as on your heart, lungs or esophagus, to monitor your recovery. Your doctor can look at any lines or tubes that were placed during surgery and can make sure there aren’t any air leaks or areas of fluid accumulation.

A pacemaker, defibrillator or catheter. Pacemakers and defibrillators have leads attached to your heart to make sure your heart rate and rhythm are normal, and catheters are small tubes used to deliver medications or for dialysis. A chest X-ray usually is taken after placement of such medical devices to make sure everything is positioned correctly.

If you are having chest pain, call 911 immediately. For minor chest problems or concerns, call
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