Imagine waking up to the news that dental x-rays cause brain tumors.
Two weeks ago, nearly every major network and newspaper (Fox News, ABC News, The Washington Post, to name a few) reported on a study published in the American Cancer Society’s journal, Cancer citing a link between dental x-rays and a type of brain tumor called meningioma.
Meningiomas are the most common type of brain tumor and are almost always benign. While the study notes that the risk factors for developing meningiomas is poorly understood, it does point out that “ionizing radiation is the major risk factor for meningioma and that dental x-rays are the most common artificial source of exposure to ionizing radiation in the United States.” (guilt by association).
Unfortunately, the methodology used in this study was found by many scientists to be flawed. The data and subsequent conclusions were based on recollections of patients having dental x-rays many years earlier, some even decades ago, when radiation exposure was much higher because of older technology and slower film. In fact, information was gathered via phone surveys in which subjects were asked how many x-rays they had over the course of their lifetimes and how old they were when they were taken.
The statistics collected were never correlated to the actual dental charts which would have shown exactly how many x-rays were imaged. Anecdotally, I have found that in my 30 years of clinical practice new patients rarely report with accuracy when the last set of x-rays was taken and how many films were exposed. That’s why we always wait to see the radiographs from the previous dentist before taking new ones.
The cancer article also failed to take into account other sources of radiation including CAT scans, chest x-rays and the environment. The American Dental Association recognized some of the shortcomings in the article and encouraged further research.
What does this mean for the patient?
Good clinical judgment on the part of your dentist is paramount in deciding when dental x-rays are necessary. The need varies with the individual depending on such factors as clinical presentation, age, diet (the amount of refined carbohydrates consumed), past dental history (does the patient have extensive restorations or a pristine cavity-free dentition?), and medical history including medications that may cause dry mouth and increased susceptibility to decay.
While the aforementioned study has reached questionable conclusions about the safety of x-rays, ionizing radiation does pose potential health risks that cannot be dismissed out of hand. (See my previous blogs about the use of thyroid collars and cone beam radiology).
Just as it is irresponsible to overdo the use of x-rays, so it is foolish to negate the need for periodic radiographic examination. One must always weigh the risk vs. the benefits of any treatment or diagnostic modality.
One point that I must emphasize: most patients in this tumor study had x-rays taken in the 1960’s. With the advent of digital radiography, radiation exposure has been reduced by as much as 100% or more.
Dr. Michael Sinkin has been practicing dentistry for over two decades. He truly cares about the experience his patients have and takes great pride in making them feel relaxed and comfortable during every visit. Come in for an appointment and experience a different kind of dental practice. To find out more about Dr. Sinkin, please click here.