What It Is
A forearm X-ray is a safe and painless test that uses a small amount of radiation to take a picture of a person's forearm (including the wrist, radius, ulna, and elbow). During the examination, an X-ray machine sends a beam of radiation through the arm, and an image is recorded on a computer or special X-ray film. This image shows the soft tissues and bones of the forearm.
The X-ray image is black and white. Dense structures that block the passage of the X-ray beam through the body, such as the bones, appear white on the X-ray image. Softer body tissues, such as muscles, allow the X-ray beams to pass through them and appear darker.
X-rays are performed by an X-ray technician in the radiology department of a hospital, a radiology center, or a health care provider's office. Two pictures are usually taken of the forearm: one from the front (anteroposterior view, or AP) and one from the side (lateral view).
Why It's Done
A forearm X-ray can help find the causes of common signs and symptoms such as pain, tenderness, swelling, or deformity of the forearm. It can detect broken bones, and after a broken bone has been set, can help determine whether the bones are in proper alignment and the break has healed properly.
If surgery of the forearm is required, an X-ray may be taken to plan for the surgery and to assess the results of the operation. Also, an X-ray can help to detect later stages of infection, as well as cysts, tumors, or other diseases in the bones of the forearm.
A forearm X-ray doesn't require any special preparation. Your child may be asked to remove some clothing, jewelry, or any metal objects that might interfere with the X-ray image.
If your daughter is pregnant, it's important to tell the X-ray technician or her doctor. Forearm X-rays are usually avoided during pregnancy because there's a small chance the radiation may harm the developing baby. But if the X-ray is necessary, precautions can be taken to protect the fetus.
This is a quick procedure. Although it may take about 15 minutes, actual exposure to radiation is only a few seconds.
Your child will be asked to enter a special room that will most likely contain a table and a large X-ray machine hanging from the ceiling or wall. Parents are usually able to accompany their child to provide reassurance and support. If you stay in the room while the X-ray is being done, you will be asked to wear a lead apron to protect certain parts of your body from radiation.
If your child is in the hospital and can't easily be brought to the radiology department, a portable X-ray machine can be brought to the bedside. Portable X-rays are sometimes used in emergency departments, intensive care units (ICUs), and operating rooms.
The technician will seat your child and position your child's forearm on the table, and will then step behind a wall or into an adjoining room to operate the machine. Two X-rays are usually taken (from the front and side), so the technician will return to reposition the arm for each X-ray.
Older kids will be asked to stay still for a couple of seconds while the X-ray is taken; infants may require gentle restraint. Keeping the arm still is important to prevent blurring of the X-ray image.
What to Expect
Your child won't feel anything as the X-ray is taken. The X-ray room may feel cool due to air conditioning used to maintain the equipment.
The positions required for the X-ray may feel uncomfortable, but they need to be held for only a few seconds. If your child is injured and can't stay in the required position, the technician might be able to find another position that's easier on your child. Babies often cry in the X-ray room, especially if they're restrained, but this won't interfere with the procedure.
If you stay in the room while the X-ray is being done, you'll be asked to wear a lead apron to protect certain parts of your body. Your child's reproductive organs will also be protected with a lead shield.
After the X-rays are taken, you and your child will be asked to wait a few minutes while the images are processed. If they're blurred, the X-rays may need to be redone.
Getting the Results
The X-rays will be looked at by a radiologist (a doctor who's specially trained in reading and interpreting X-ray images). The radiologist will send a report to your doctor, who will discuss the results with you and explain what they mean.
In an emergency, the results of an X-ray can be available quickly for review by a doctor. Otherwise, they're usually ready in 1-2 days. In most cases, results can't be given directly to the patient or family at the time of the test.
In general, X-rays are very safe. Although any exposure to radiation poses some risk to the body, the amount used in a forearm X-ray is small and not considered dangerous. It's important to know that radiologists use the minimum amount of radiation required to get the best results.
Developing babies are more sensitive to radiation and are at greater risk for harm, so if your daughter is pregnant, make sure to inform her doctor and the X-ray technician.
Helping Your Child
You can help your child prepare for a forearm X-ray by explaining the test in simple terms before the procedure. It may help to explain that getting an X-ray is like posing for a picture.
You can describe the room and the equipment that will be used, and reassure your child that you'll be right there for support. For older kids, be sure to explain the importance of staying still while the X-ray is taken so it won't have to be repeated.
If You Have Questions
If you have questions about why the forearm X-ray is needed, speak with your doctor. You can also talk to the X-ray technician before the procedure.
Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: August 2011