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Sinus X-ray

(Sinus Films)

Procedure overview

What is a sinus X-ray?

A sinus X-ray is a type of X-ray used to obtain images of the sinuses. The sinuses are air-filled cavities lined with mucous membranes located within the bones of the skull.

During a sinus X-ray, X-rays pass through the sinuses and form an image on a special type of film. The sinuses are usually filled with air, which appears black on X-ray film. An opaque (whitened) area on an otherwise normal film may indicate the presence of sinusitis (inflammation of the mucous membranes of the sinuses), hemorrhage, tumor, or other problems.

As computerized tomography (CT scan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technologies are often able to provide improved imaging of the sinuses, the use of these scans may replace sinus X-rays in certain circumstances.

Other related procedures that may be used to evaluate problems of the sinuses include X-rays of the skull, CT scan of the brain, and MRI of the brain and spine. Please see these procedures for more information.

What is an X-ray?

X-rays use invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs on film. X-rays are made by using external radiation to produce images of the body, its organs, and other internal structures for diagnostic purposes. X-rays pass through body structures onto specially-treated plates (similar to camera film) and a "negative" type picture is made (the more solid a structure is, the whiter it appears on the film).

What are the sinuses?

Illustration of sinuses, adult
Click Image to Enlarge

The sinuses are cavities, or air-filled pockets, that are near the nasal passage. There are four different types of sinuses:

  • Ethmoid sinus. Located inside the face, around the area of the bridge of the nose, this sinus is present at birth, and continues to grow.

  • Maxillary sinus. Located inside the face, around the area of the cheek, this sinus is also present at birth, and continues to grow.

  • Frontal sinus. Located inside the face, in the area of the forehead, this sinus does not develop until around seven years of age.

  • Sphenoid sinus. Located deep in the face, behind the nose, this sinus does not develop until adolescence.

The lining of the sinuses is similar to the lining of the nose.

Reasons for the procedure

A sinus X-ray may be performed to detect injury or other problems in the sinuses, to assess inflammation or infection, or to determine the location and size of a tumor or other mass. The procedure may also be used to evaluate the patient after sinus surgery.

Advantages of a sinus X-ray are that it is simple, quick, noninvasive, relatively inexpensive, and can give the doctor useful information. However, a disadvantage is that a sinus X-ray can determine only that a problem exists, not the specific cause of the problem.

There may be other reasons for your doctor to recommend a sinus X-ray.

Risks of the procedure

You may want to ask your doctor about the amount of radiation used during the procedure and the risks related to your particular situation. It is a good idea to keep a record of your past history of radiation exposure, such as previous scans and other types of X-rays, so that you can inform your doctor. Risks associated with radiation exposure may be related to the cumulative number of X-ray examinations and/or treatments over a long period of time.

If you are pregnant or suspect that you may be pregnant, you should notify your health care provider. Radiation exposure during pregnancy may lead to birth defects. If it is necessary for you to have a sinus X-ray, special precautions will be made to minimize the radiation exposure to the fetus.

There may be other risks depending on your specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your doctor prior to the procedure.

Before the procedure

  • Your doctor will explain the procedure to you and offer you the opportunity to ask any questions that you might have about the procedure.

  • No fasting or sedation is required before the procedure.

  • Notify the radiologic technologist if you are pregnant or suspect that you may be pregnant.

  • Notify the radiologic technologist if you have a prosthetic (artificial) eye, because the prosthesis can create a confusing shadow on a sinus X-ray.

  • Based on your medical condition, your doctor may request other specific preparation.

During the procedure

A sinus X-ray may be performed on an outpatient basis or as part of your stay in a hospital. Procedures may vary depending on your condition and your doctor's practices.

Generally, a sinus X-ray follows this process:

  1. You will be asked to remove any jewelry or other objects that may interfere with the test.

  2. You will be positioned on an X-ray table that carefully places the part of the head that is to be X-rayed between the X-ray machine and a cassette containing the X-ray film. Your head will be placed in a fixed position with a foam vise (the vise does not hurt) to keep your head from moving.

  3. Body parts not being imaged may be covered with a lead apron (shield) to avoid exposure to the X-rays.

  4. The radiologic technologist will ask you to hold still in a certain position for a few moments while the X-ray exposure is made.

  5. If the X-ray is being performed to determine an injury, special care will be taken to prevent further injury. For example, a neck brace may be applied if a cervical spine fracture is suspected.

  6. Some sinus X-ray studies may require several different positions. It is extremely important to remain completely still while the exposure is made, as any movement may distort the image and even require another X-ray to be done to obtain a clear image of the body part in question.

  7. The X-ray beam will be focused on the area to be photographed.

  8. The radiologic technologist will step behind a protective window while the image is taken.

While the X-ray procedure itself causes no pain, the manipulation of the body part being examined may cause some discomfort or pain, particularly in the case of a recent injury or invasive procedure such as surgery. The radiologic technologist will use all possible comfort measures and complete the procedure as quickly as possible to minimize any discomfort or pain.

After the procedure

Generally, there is no special type of care following a sinus X-ray. However, your doctor may give you additional or alternate instructions after the procedure, depending on your particular situation.

Online resources

The content provided here is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your doctor. Please consult your health care provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.

This page contains links to other websites with information about this procedure and related health conditions. We hope you find these sites helpful, but please remember we do not control or endorse the information presented on these websites, nor do these sites endorse the information contained here.

American Academy of Otolaryngology

American Cancer Society

American College of Radiology

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

National Library of Medicine