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X-ray Stories

May 1, 1999 5:00 AMJun 28, 2023 7:05 PM


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Radiologists are the reluctant voyeurs of medicine. “We see absurd things all the time,” says John Markisz, of the Cardiac Imaging clinic in New York. “After 20 years, I’m still amazed.” This mentally unstable woman swallowed safety pins to punish herself. The pins were closed and extracted with forceps.


An X-ray of a patient afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis shows the shadow of the skeleton and allows doctors to chart the progress of therapy. “The emergency room of the future will provide diagnostic information in milliseconds,” says Robert Parkey, a radiologist in Dallas. “But there’ll always be a need for X-rays.”

In an era when today's technological marvel becomes tomorrow's can opener--see anyone gaping in wonder at a fax transmission?--the X-ray image maintains its power to fascinate.

Television, movies, and computer screens can take us to new places, but X-rays still work the magic of making the invisible visible. Ever since physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the mysterious, penetrating electromagnetic beams in 1895, X-rays have changed the way we live. Surgeons, once just a notch above butchers in the eyes of their medical peers, still rely on X-rays to operate with less guesswork.

X-rays are not just scientific tools for doctors. Some record human foibles, others tragedy. All are documents of pain

Even with the availability of ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, X-rays remain among the cheapest and often most effective means of seeing inside the body.

The images on these pages, colored for clarity, may seem at first to be unnerving documents of pain. But they offer a subtler message too. "People break bones and suffer from diseases--they have and always will," says Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles, author of Naked to the Bone, a history of medical imaging. "But today most people also get well again. To me, X-ray images have a hopeful message."


An elderly man suffering from severe constipation tried to open up his internal plumbing by inserting a jam jar. The strategy didn’t work.


A knee ravaged by arthritis was replaced with a titanium prosthesis. The screw and plate at right hold the kneecap in place


One of the first uses of X-rays was to help surgeons locate bullets in the body. There are two slugs—the white spots—in this person’s skull.


Cardiologists routinely use X-rays to check that the electrical leads running to the heart’s ventricles remain connected and unbroken.


Orthopedic surgeons inserted three crosshatched screws to temporarily immobilize an ankle shattered by multiple fractures.


Periodic X-ray scans ensure that an artificial joint—inserted into the pelvic socket and cemented into the femur—doesn’t loosen.


Doctors attached a metal rod to stabilize the bone as it heals. Newly grown bone tissue is visible as a faint lump near the break.


A metal plate has been screwed into four of this patient’s vertebrae to prevent any potentially crippling pressure on the spinal cord.

Medical Imaging Techniques from Lawrence Berkeley LabsRadiology: An Inside Look from the American College of Radiology

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