Tuesday, January 12, 2010

X-rays Stand the Test of Time

by Ryan Nawrocki

Have you ever thought about some of those medical technologies that just don’t seem to go away? Many were created years ago but have stood the test of time. X-rays are exactly that type of invention – they have only gotten better with age.

I talked with Jeanette A.F. Linder, M.D., the new chief of the Weinman Family Department of Radiation Oncology in the Alvin & Lois Lapidus Cancer Institute about the history of X-rays and their current usage.

Wilhelm Rontgen first discovered X-rays in 1895 when he took a photo of his wife’s hand, says Linder.

“It was clear at this point in history that X-rays could have a significant medical use," she says.

X-rays work by using a type of electromagnetic energy. During an imaging procedure, the ray passes through the body and then the image is captured on a photographic plate. Dense body parts, like bones, absorb more of the X-ray beam; and less dense parts, like muscle, allow more to pass through to the photographic film and turn it dark. That’s why bones appear white and soft tissues appear grey.

“In addition to providing images of our bodies, X-rays are also used to fight cancer,” says Linder. “The CyberKnife® at Sinai Hospital is one example of how X-ray use has improved over the years. When X-rays were first used to treat cancer, patients were only exposed to these weakly penetrating beams until burns would appear on the skin. This meant that X-rays were not able to treat cancers deeper in the body effectively.”

Today, radiation is a regular course of treatment in fighting cancer. The rays of radiation kill cancer cells, while sparing most healthy cells near the tumor site. Most patients don’t typically experience skin burns that were common in radiation treatments of the past.

X-rays now are capable of being so focused because they use linear accelerators, which dramatically increase the strength of the beam. New machines such as the CyberKnife don’t just treat cancer with one beam. During a CyberKnife treatment, a tumor is targeted by hundreds of beams from multiple angles.

So what does the future hold for X-rays? X-ray technology will only continue to improve. With the advancements of computers and other digital technology, medical professionals are able to get better images and treat cancer with a tighter and tighter focus. This means that X-rays will continue to be one of the old standbys in modern medicine.

To learn more about the Sinai Department of Radiation Oncology, call 410-601-WELL (9355).

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