freelance journalist, print journalist, online journalist, copywriter, content editor, freelance editor, health and lifestyle, blogger Warning: going to the dentist could be highly hazardous… | Christine Morgan - Journalist
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Here’s more bad news for anyone who dreads going to the dentist – and, let’s face it, nobody actually likes having their teeth poked, prodded, yanked and (perish the thought) drilled. Well okay, if you do, you’re not normal. Not in my opinion, anyway.

Spotted in today’s Daily Mail is a story about how dental x-rays may raise your risk for cancer. Specifically thyroid cancer. And as riskfactorphobia-inducing stories go, it’s an epic one.

So here goes. According to a study published in the journal Acta Oncologica (no, I haven’t heard of it either) and carried out by researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, the x-rays you get at the dentist’s may increase your risk for thyroid cancer (a disease that, according to the Mail, has doubled in terms of the number of people it affects over the last 30 years). The study’s authors recommend that dental x-rays should not, as is common practice, be routinely given – such as when you join a new dental practice, for instance, or when having a check-up – and that dentists should protect their patients’ thyroids when they are being x-rayed by covering their chests and necks with a lightweight lead collar or bib.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never come across a lead collar in any of the dentists I’ve ever used (and there have been many).

But let’s get back to the nitty gritty of the story – here comes the scary bit. If you’ve had four dental x-rays, you’re more than twice as likely to develop thyroid cancer than someone who has never had one. If you’ve had between five and nine, your risk is four times higher. And if you’ve had 10 or more dental x-rays (and I assume they mean during your lifetime), your risk is 5.4 times higher than that of someone who has never had one. Yikes.

So we’re told we should look after our teeth by having regular check-ups (every six months is the norm, I’m told). Now nearly every dentist I’ve ever seen has taken one or more x-rays at almost every check-up. That’s one hell of a lot of x-rays. Talk about 10, I wouldn’t even like to count how many I might have had. And I have pretty good teeth, so there’s been no need for extra x-rays, only the routine ones. It’s a great excuse for never going to another dentist ever again.

But let’s rein in the riskfactorphobia a bit. According to Cancer Research UK, thyroid cancer accounts for less than one percent of all cancers in the UK (in 2008, it caused 354 deaths). So your risk of developing it looks pretty small anyway. Not only that, but the study was actually carried out in Kuwait, not the UK – and they may be using different x-ray equipment there than we do over here.

There again, dental x-rays aren’t that good at spotting problems. I did some research on the subject a couple of years ago, and found that x-rays only pick up around 50 percent of decay (so it’s just as likely they won’t spot something as they will). There are other methods of detecting tooth problems, one being a technology called AC impedance spectroscopy (this is where a spectrum of electrical frequencies is passed through your tooth). This technology apparently detects up to 90 percent of tooth decay and, as far as I’m aware, is completely harmless (but don’t quote me on that – see the website for CarieScan, a system that uses AC impedance spectroscopy to get the facts direct from the developer). The trouble is, equipping all our dental practices with new, expensive machinery is just not financially viable in these cash-strapped times.

So here’s what I suggest. Next time you’re at the dentist’s and they tell you they need to take an x-ray, make sure you insist on using a lead bib. Am I going to do that? Too right I am.