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Just about everyone has been draped with a lead apron while dental x-rays were taken. The aprons have been used for years to protect patients from being exposed to excessive levels of radiation from the x-ray’s beams. But, is there really a need to use a lead apron today?

Understanding the History of Dental X-rays

When x-ray equipment was first invented, the technology was rudimentary at best. Poorly collimated equipment did, indeed, pose a potential health threat to patients. The scatter from the beams was far greater than today, which meant some type of protection was strongly recommended.

According to studies, a lead apron will absorb nearly all the x-ray scatter. That means the aprons do, indeed, provide a level of protection for dental patients. However, modern x-ray equipment is designed to concentrate the x-rays far more effectively than older equipment, which means the scope of scatter is significantly reduced.

In addition, older x-ray film required longer to develop, which exposed patients to potentially damaging x-rays for longer than modern equipment. Protective lead aprons, in that context, certainly provided protection for patients.

Exploring the Psychological Aspects of Using a Lead Apron

Since the use of protective lead aprons was so common in the past, most dental patients today simply expect to see them when x-rays were taken. There is still a perception of danger, and many patients may feel apprehensive when they’re not shielded.

Rather than complicating the patient’s experience in a dental office, it might simply make more sense to offer patients the option of protection even though the risk of excess exposure is minimal.

Of course, dental professionals today are talking to patients about the advances in x-ray technology and reduced danger of exposure to harmful x-rays during a typical office visit. Dental professionals using modern x-ray equipment are generally proud of the newest technology and its many benefits, and most take time to explain how dental care is improved when modern x-ray technology is used.

Other Health Considerations Need to Be Addressed

That doesn’t mean there is no danger, however, as there are situations where any unnecessary exposure should be avoided. That’s why companies like Kemper Medical still promote the use of a lead apron when x-rays are taken.

Since radiation is accumulative, it’s always important to keep any exposure to a minimum. Studies demonstrate that every x-ray a person has during their life will add to the total body load, and that load never decreases. That means anyone who has had numerous x-rays taken or has been exposed to radiation in other ways must take precautions to minimize adding to their total body load.

Certain physical issues, like thyroid problems, are exacerbated by any exposure to radiation. That means patients with any type of thyroid issues will most likely request the use of protective devices during the taking of any x-rays.

A pregnant woman may also have concerns about injuring the unborn child. A lead apron effectively protects the abdominal region while x-rays are taken. It’s always a good idea for pregnant women to discuss their dental care with their obstetrician before obtaining dental care to ensure there is minimal risk to the fetus.

Patients who are at an increased risk of developing various cancers may also feel it’s necessary to protect themselves even though the risk of over-exposure is quite minimal. Since the patient’s emotional well-being is at stake, simply offering the added protection of a lead apron may well enhance that patient’s comfort level.

The use of protective devices is also recommended for children, especially thyroid collars. Health experts continue to emphasize the fact that a child’s thyroid can easily be affected by exposure to radiation, as it isn’t fully developed until a later growth stage. Rather than risking a child’s health, many dental experts continue to use lead aprons and thyroid collars for young patients.

If any patient has a concern about their exposure to radiation during a procedure, it’s important they discuss that concern with the dental professionals prior to the x-rays being taken.

Mechanical Issues Remain a Concern for Some Patients

Even though a dental care provider has the absolute best x-ray equipment currently available, there is still a potential for some type of mechanical issue to develop. While the odds of a malfunction that would increase a patient’s exposure to radiation are slight, the patient may feel more comfortable with the added protection of a lead vest.

Older patients who don’t fully trust the technology may be more likely to feel uncomfortable around x-ray equipment. They grew up in an era when people were taught to avoid any potential contact with radiation. No amount of explaining the advances in safety and training of x-ray technicians will allay their concerns. Simply offering the patient additional protection in the form of a lead vest may be the best option.

Complying With Local Regulations

In many areas, laws are in place that mandate the use of protective devices while x-rays are being taken. Even though modern equipment is generally safe to use, those laws must be complied with.

California is a good example. That state requires the use of protective lead aprons, which means the question of whether a protective device is used is taken out of the hands of dental professionals and patients. Other states also have regulations in place, so it pays to fully understand who must be provided with protection in a specific jurisdiction.

The Take-Away

While dental x-rays are unlikely to pose any significant threat to average patients, it may be better to err on the side of caution and make use of protective strategies when there is any risk of excess exposure to radiation.

At the very least, patients should have the option of requesting the use of a lead apron when x-rays are being taken. It’s a matter of the safety and comfort of the patient during their office visits.

Since there is no harm in using the maximum protection, why not make a lead apron or thyroid collar available to every patient? Everyone can feel comfortable knowing the patient’s safety is protected.

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