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About X-Rays

Properties

X-ray photons carry enough energy to ionize atoms and disrupt molecular bonds. This makes it a type of ionizing radiation, and therefore harmful to living tissue. A very high radiation dose over a short amount of time causes radiation sickness, while lower doses can give an increased risk of radiation-induced cancer. In medical imaging this increased cancer risk is generally greatly outweighed by the benefits of the examination. The ionizing capability of X-rays can be utilized in cancer treatment to kill malignant cells using radiation therapy. It is also used for material characterization using X-ray spectroscopy.

Hard X-rays can traverse relatively thick objects without being much absorbed or scattered. For this reason, X-rays are widely used to image the inside of visually opaque objects. The most often seen applications are in medical radiography and airport security scanners, but similar techniques are also important in industry (e.g. industrial radiography and industrial CT scanning) and research (e.g. small animal CT). The penetration depth varies with several orders of magnitude over the X-ray spectrum. This allows the photon energy to be adjusted for the application so as to give sufficient transmission through the object and at the same time good contrast in the image.

Interaction with matter

X-rays interact with matter in three main ways, through photoabsorption, Compton scattering, and Rayleigh scattering. The strength of these interactions depend on the energy of the X-rays and the elemental composition of the material, but not much on chemical properties since the X-ray photon energy is much higher than chemical binding energies. Photoabsorption or photoelectric absorption is the dominant interaction mechanism in the soft X-ray regime and for the lower hard X-ray energies. At higher energies, Compton scattering dominates.
Photoelectric absorption

The probability of a photoelectric absorption per unit mass is approximately proportional to Z3/E3, where Z is the atomic number and E is the energy of the incident photon. This rule is not valid close to inner shell electron binding energies where there are abrupt changes in interaction probability, so called absorption edges. However, the general trend of high absorption coefficients and thus short penetration depths for low photon energies and high atomic numbers is very strong. For soft tissue photoabsorption dominates up to about 26 keV photon energy where Compton scattering takes over. For higher atomic number substances this limit is higher.

Compton scattering is the predominant interaction between X-rays and soft tissue in medical imaging. Compton scattering is an inelastic scattering of the X-ray photon by an outer shell electron. Part of the energy of the photon is transferred to the scattering electron, thereby ionizing the atom and increasing the wavelength of the X-ray. The scattered photon can go in any direction, but a direction similar to the original direction is a bit more likely, especially for high-energy X-rays. The probability for different scattering angles are described by the Klein–Nishina formula. The transferred energy can be directly obtained from the scattering angle from the conservation of energy and momentum.

Computed tomography

Computed tomography (CT scanning) is a medical imaging modality where tomographic images or slices of specific areas of the body are obtained from a large series of two-dimensional X-ray images taken in different directions. These cross-sectional images can be combined into a three-dimensional image of the inside of the body and used for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes in various medical disciplines.

Fluoroscopy

Fluoroscopy is an imaging technique commonly used by physicians or radiation therapists to obtain real-time moving images of the internal structures of a patient through the use of a fluoroscope. In its simplest form, a fluoroscope consists of an X-ray source and fluorescent screen between which a patient is placed. However, modern fluoroscopes couple the screen to an X-ray image intensifier and CCD video camera allowing the images to be recorded and played on a monitor.

The use of X-rays as a treatment is known as radiation therapy and is largely used for the management (including palliation) of cancer; it requires higher radiation energies than for imaging alone.

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