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X-Ray Exam: Neck

What's an X-Ray?

An X-ray is a safe and painless test that uses a small amount of radiation to make an image of bones, organs, and other parts of the body.

The X-ray image is black and white. Dense body parts, such as bones, block the passage of the X-ray beam through the body. These look white on the X-ray image. Softer body tissues, such as the skin and muscles, allow the X-ray beams to pass through them. They look darker on the image.

X-rays are commonly done in doctors’ offices, radiology departments, imaging centers, and dentists’ offices.

What's a Neck X-Ray?

In a neck X-ray, an X-ray machine sends a beam of radiation through the neck, and an image is recorded on a computer or special film. This image can show:

  • the vertebrae (neck bones)
  • the soft tissue in front of the vertebrae
  • the adenoids and tonsils if they're enlarged
  • the oral and nasal airways and the nasopharynx (where those two airways meet)
  • part of the trachea (windpipe) and the epiglottis (the flap of tissue that covers the trachea when people swallow)

An X-ray technician will take pictures of the neck:

  • from the side (lateral view) to view the soft tissues of the neck
  • from the front (anteroposterior or AP view)

Neck X-rays are done with a child standing, sitting, or lying down on a table. They should stay still for 2–3 seconds while each X-ray is taken so the images are clear. If an image is blurred, the X-ray technician might take another one.

Why Are Neck X-Rays Done?

A neck X-ray can help doctors diagnose problems in the soft tissues. For example, symptoms such as stridor (noisy breathing), barking cough, and hoarseness may be due to swelling of different areas in or near the airway. A neck X-ray can help detect a swollen epiglottis (epiglottitis), which is rare, or swelling in the tissues around the vocal cords (croup). It can also help doctors diagnose an infection in the area behind the throat (retropharyngeal abscess).

A neck X-ray can find signs of enlarged tonsils and adenoids, and might be done for kids with obstructive sleep apnea or excessive snoring, or who get a lot of sinus and ear infections.

It also can show masses in the neck, such as cysts and tumors, and swallowed or inhaled foreign objects that got stuck in the upper airway or esophagus.

What if I Have Questions?

If you have questions about the neck X-ray or what the results mean, talk to your doctor.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date Reviewed: Mar 20, 2022

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