In recent years more and more patients have expressed their concern about the safety of dental X-rays. While there has been a lot in the media about them, there is no reason to fear for your lives because of past and future dental X-rays.
The modern bitewing X-rays that you receive at your dental office give off a very small amount of radiation, about 0.04 mGy (milli-grays). In comparison, a chest X-ray gives off 0.1 mGy and the average American is exposed to 3.1 mGy of radiation every year from background radiation. "Background radiation" is the unavoidable amount of radiation that every person is exposed to simply by living on this world (this radiation comes from various sources such as cosmic rays, rocks, water, and food). See the attached chart comparing the radiation exposure of various sources.
So what about all those stories on the news about how dental X-rays were linked to brain tumors? This is certainly a case where the media threw a story completely out of proportion. The coverage on the research that was reported on about the link between brain tumors and dental X-rays was probably meant to scare the general public and create a good story. In reality, the study doesn't really hold up. In a nut shell, researchers interviewed 1,400 people with benign brain tumors and 1,350 without a history of brain tumors about their dental history. More people with brain tumors remembered having more frequent dental X-rays than those without a history of brain tumors. At first glance this seems pretty scary. However, no actual records were pulled and the people were only asked to report what they remembered. This study essentially relied on the memories of certain people to come to a conclusion, something that is very unreliable and would not be taken seriously by the medical community. The findings of the study were probably more coincidental than accurate and proved nothing. To evaluate whether dental X-rays are truly linked to brain tumors, or any cancer, a much more extensive and conclusive study would have to take place.
It would be unwise to completely deny yourself the technology of dental X-rays. They are fairly safe and often uncover health problems that you would not otherwise be aware of. A small cavity in a tooth that is not causing any pain can be detected through a bitewing X-ray and taken care of quickly. If left untreated, a simple filling that may cost a little over $100 could turn into a very expensive root canal and crown, costing thousands. With that in mind, it's still important to be careful with this technology and limit exposure. Your dentist should always provide a leaded apron for you to wear that minimizes any exposure of radiation to your body. While most dentist's recommend that you receive bitewing's once a year, a person with a consistently healthy mouth may only need to get X-rays every two years.