A standard x-ray, or radiograph, is one of the most common tests performed today. In 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen first discovered the x-ray. His achievement dramatically changed the practice of medicine. For the first time, physicians could actually see beyond the skin and soft tissues to the bones of the spine and extremities without surgery. When the spine is x-rayed the beams pass through the skin and muscle. When the beams are stopped by bone, a white shadow is left on the film. This allows a quick look at the bones to identify fractures or scoliosis, but gives little information about the soft tissues and usually does not give enough detail to see ruptured discs or bone spurs. X-rays are best for looking at bone.
X-rays are widely used to make radiographs or in a machine called a fluoroscope, which can give continuous x-rays as a guide for injections or surgery. An x-ray is usually done when spine or limb pain occurs after an injury or is slowly progressive in nature. An x-ray may show an abnormality, but may be inconclusive. In such cases, additional tests may be ordered to gain more information.