It's difficult to measure how x-ray imaging has transformed dentistry since its use became prominent a half century ago. As equipment and methods standardized, the technology revolutionized the way we diagnose tooth decay and other mouth-related issues.
One of the more useful of these methods is called the bitewing x-ray. The term comes from the shape of the device a patient holds between their teeth with the film attached on the side toward their tongue. We direct the x-ray beam to the outside of the patient's cheek, where it passes through the teeth to expose on the film. Its particular design provides clearer images since the patient's bite helps keep the film still and distortion-free, making it easier to view signs of early tooth decay.
Bitewing x-rays usually consist of four films, two on either side of the mouth, necessary to capture all of the teeth (children with smaller jaws, however, often only require one film per side). How frequently they're conducted depends on a number of factors, including the patient's age: children or young adolescents are usually filmed more frequently than adults, usually every six to twelve months. Frequency also depends on a patient's particular decay risk — the higher the risk the more frequent the x-ray.
Regardless of how often they're performed, a similar application principle applies with bitewing x-rays as with any other radiological method: As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA). With the ALARA principle in other words, we're looking for that sweet spot where we're able to detect the earliest stages of dental disease with the least amount of radiation exposure.
Bitewings fit this principle well: a patient receives only a fraction of the radiation exposure from a four-film bitewing as they do from a daily dose of environmental radiation. Factor in new digital technology that reduces exposure rates and bitewings pose virtually no health risk to patients, especially if conducted in a prudent manner.
The benefits are well worth it. Thanks to bitewing x-rays we may be able to diagnose decay early and stop it before it causes you or your family member extensive tooth damage.