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Thoracic spine x-ray

Definition

A thoracic spine x-ray is an x-ray of the 12 chest (thoracic) bones (vertebrae) of the spine. The vertebrae are separated by flat pads of cartilage called disks that provide a cushion between the bones.

Alternative Names

Vertebral radiography; X-ray - spine; Thoracic x-ray; Spine x-ray; Thoracic spine films; Back films

How the Test is Performed

The test is done in a hospital radiology department or in your health care provider's office. You will lie on the x-ray table in different positions. If the x-ray is checking for an injury, care will be taken to prevent further injury.

The x-ray machine will be moved over the thoracic area of the spine. You will hold your breath as the picture is taken so that the picture will not be blurry. Usually, 2 or 3 x-ray views are needed.

How to Prepare for the Test

Tell your provider if you are pregnant. Also tell your provider if you have had surgery in your chest, abdomen, or pelvis.

Remove all jewelry.

How the Test will Feel

The test causes no discomfort. The table may be cold.

Why the Test is Performed

The x-ray helps evaluate:

  • Bone injuries
  • Cartilage loss
  • Arthritis
  • Curvature in the spine
  • Diseases of the bone
  • Tumors of the bone

What Abnormal Results Mean

The test can detect:

  • Bone spurs
  • Deformities of the spine
  • Disk narrowing
  • Dislocations
  • Fractures (most often compression fractures of the vertebrae)
  • Thinning of the bone (osteoporosis)
  • Wearing away (degeneration) of the vertebrae
  • Abnormal alignment of the bone (spondylolisthesis)

Risks

There is low radiation exposure. X-rays are monitored and regulated to provide the minimum amount of radiation exposure needed to produce the image. Most experts feel that the risk is low compared with the benefits.

Pregnant women and children are more sensitive to the risks of x-rays.

Considerations

The x-ray will not detect problems in the muscles, nerves, and other soft tissues, because these problems cannot be seen well on an x-ray.

Gallery

Herniated nucleus pulposus
Herniated nucleus pulposus is a condition in which part or all of the soft, gelatinous central portion of an intervertebral disk is forced through a weakened part of the disk, resulting in back pain and nerve root irritation.
Skeletal spine
The spine is divided into several sections. The cervical vertebrae make up the neck. The thoracic vertebrae comprise the chest section and have ribs attached. The lumbar vertebrae are the remaining vertebrae below the last thoracic bone and the top of the sacrum. The sacral vertebrae are caged within the bones of the pelvis, and the coccyx represents the terminal vertebrae or vestigial tail.
Skeletal spine
The spine is divided into several sections. The cervical vertebrae make up the neck. The thoracic vertebrae comprise the chest section and have ribs attached. The lumbar vertebrae are the remaining vertebrae below the last thoracic bone and the top of the sacrum. The sacral vertebrae are caged within the bones of the pelvis, and the coccyx represents the terminal vertebrae or vestigial tail.
Lumbar vertebrae
There are five lumbar vertebrae located in the lower back. These vertebrae receive the most stress and are the weight-bearing portion of the back. The lumbar vertebrae allow movements such as flexion and extension, and some lateral flexion.
Skeletal spine
The spine is divided into several sections. The cervical vertebrae make up the neck. The thoracic vertebrae comprise the chest section and have ribs attached. The lumbar vertebrae are the remaining vertebrae below the last thoracic bone and the top of the sacrum. The sacral vertebrae are caged within the bones of the pelvis, and the coccyx represents the terminal vertebrae or vestigial tail.

References

Preston-Suni K, Kaji AH. Spinal trauma. In: Walls RM, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2023:chap 35.

Mettler FA. Skeletal system. In: Mettler FA, ed. Essentials of Radiology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 8.

Van Thielen T, van den Hauwe L, Van Goethem JW, Parizel PM. Current status of imaging of the spine and anatomical features. In: Adam A, Dixon AK, Gillard JH, Schaefer-Prokop CM, eds. Grainger & Allison's Diagnostic Radiology: A Textbook of Medical Imaging. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 47.

Last reviewed August 12, 2023 by C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team..

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