Dental Radiology Techniques
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2017
B.A. Niemiec
Southern California Veterinary Dental Specialties, San Diego, CA, USA

Dental Radiograph Units

Radiographic exposure is controlled by 3 components: kVp (kilovolt peak), MA (milliamperage), and exposure time. KVp controls the “quality” of the x-ray beam. This is the power of each particular x-ray particle which controls the penetration of the beam through tissues.

The quantity of the exposure is controlled by MA and time of exposure. The higher the MA, the more X-rays produced over the time period. Multiply this number by the exposure time and you will get the total number of x-ray units.

Since there is not a significant amount of variation of tissues in oral radiology, the KVP and MA are set constant on dental radiology units. The only variable factor is time. This is measured in seconds or pulses. One pulse is equal to 1/60 of a second. Most standard (human) dental radiology units have a digital control for the exposure and it is set by the operator based on a technique chart. Recently, however, veterinary specific machines have become available which has a computer that sets the exposure based on the size of the patient, the speed of dental film used, and the particular object tooth. This can take a lot of the guesswork out of the exposure setting. However, with a little experience and practice, it is easy to figure out a setting.

Dental Radiographic Film

Dental film is non-screen film. This means that it is directly exposed by the x-ray and does not require an intensifying screen. This gives much more detail than standard radiographic film but requires a higher amount of exposure. It is packaged in its own paper or plastic sleeve, to protect it from light and the oral environment.

There are two types of dental film commonly used in dental radiology. These are Ultra-speed “D” and Ekta speed “E” film. Recently “F” speed film has become popular. The difference is in the size of the silver halide crystals and secondary to this the amount of exposure required to expose the dental film. “E” speed film requires approximately 1/2 the amount of radiation for exposure than “D” speed film, and “F” speed even less. This decreases exposure to the patient and staff as well as decreases the wear and tear on the x-ray unit. There is a slight decrease in resolution with faster films due to the larger crystal size, but according to most experts, the difference is negligible. Therefore, it is recommended in human dentistry to use “E or F” speed to decrease exposure time. They are more technique sensitive, however, in both the exposure and development of the image. This may be frustrating for the novice; therefore, it is generally recommended that practitioners start with “D” speed and advance to “E or F” speed when they are more comfortable with the settings and positioning.

There are several different sizes of dental film available (4, 3, 2, 1, and 0). The most common sizes used in veterinary medicine are 4, 2, and 1. Size 3 are bite wings and are generally not used in veterinary medicine. Size 4 (occlusal) film is the largest available, it is used mostly in large breed dogs or when taking whole mouth radiographs. For small dogs and cats and most any single tooth radiograph, size 2 (standard) is commonly used. For the mandibular first and second premolars, and very small cats and puppies size 1 (or 0) (periapical) are used.

Another consideration in selecting film size is cost. Size 4 film is about 3 times the cost of size 2. Therefore, if you can use a size 2, it is recommended. However, it is much easier to position size 4 films, allowing for much more latitude in positioning. This will result in less retakes. Therefore, the less experienced may consider practicing with size 4 film and graduating to size 2 when a level of skill is obtained.

Digital Dental Radiology

There are numerous human veterinary digital systems. These are excellent means of obtaining dental radiographs. The only major problem currently is the lack of a number 4 sensor. The major advantages to these systems are the decrease in radiation exposure, rapidity of the development, and that you can reposition the sensor if the view is not correct the first time. There is one company, however, which makes a size 4 phosphor plate (CR).

Taking a Dental Radiograph

Step 1: Patient Positioning

Position the patient so that the area of interest is convenient to the radiographic beam. In general, this is where the object is “up.” For maxillary teeth, the patient should be in ventral recumbency. For mandibular canines and incisors, the pet should be in dorsal recumbency. Finally, for maxillary cheek teeth, the patient should be in lateral recumbency with the affected side up. This being said, in our practice virtually all radiographs are exposed in lateral recumbency. This takes some getting used to but decreases the number of times a patient must be rolled when doing surgical or endodontic procedures.

Step 2: Film Placement Within the Patient’s Mouth

There is an embossed dot on the film. The convex side of this should be placed towards the x-ray beam. In most films, this side is pure white. The opposite or “back” side of the film will usually be colored (purple or green). Place the film in the mouth so that the entire tooth (crown and entire root surface) is covered by the radiograph. Remember, the roots of all teeth are very long. This is especially true of canine teeth, which are longer than you think. Always err on the side of having the film too far in the mouth to ensure you do not cut off the root apexes. The film should be placed as near as possible to the object (generally touching the tooth and gingiva) to minimize distortion.

Step 3: Positioning the Beam Head

There are two major techniques for positioning the beam head in veterinary patients. Both of these techniques are used daily in veterinary practice.

Parallel Technique

This is where the film is placed parallel to the object being radiographed and perpendicular to the beam. This is how standard (large) films are taken. This gives the most accurate image. Unfortunately, this is only useful in the lower cheek teeth in the dog and cat. This is due to the fact that these patients don’t have an arched palate. The film cannot be placed parallel to the tooth roots because of the palate’s interference. Therefore, this technique is not always possible.

Bisecting Angle Technique

This is the most common type of dental radiograph taken in veterinary patients. This uses the theory of equilateral triangles to create an image that accurately represents the tooth in question. To utilize this technique, the film is placed as parallel as possible to the tooth root. Then the angle between the tooth root and film is measured. This angle is cut in half (bisected)and the beam placed perpendicular to this angle. This gives the most accurate representation of the root.

If this angle is incorrect, the radiographic image will be distorted. This is because the x-ray beam will create an image that is longer or shorter than the object imaged. The best way to visualize this is to think of a building and the sun. The building will create a 90-degree (right) angle to the ground. The bisecting angle in this case is 45 degrees.

Early and late in the day, the sun is at an acute angle to the building and casts a long shadow. In radiology this occurs when the angle of the beam to the object is too small and is known as elongation. At some point in the late morning and early afternoon, the sun is at a 45-degree angle to the building, which is the bisecting angle. This gives an accurate representation of the building height. As the sun continues up in the sky, the shadow shortens. This occurs in veterinary radiology when the angle is too great and is known as foreshortening. Finally, at noon, the sun is straight up from the building, which gives no shadow.

The “simplified technique” as developed by Dr. Tony Woodward does not utilize direct measurement of any angle, instead relying on approximate angles to create diagnostic images. There are only 3 angles used for all radiographs in this system 20, 45, and 90.

Mandibular premolars and molars are exposed at a 90-degree angle, maxillary premolars and molars at a 45-degree angle, and incisors and canines at a 20-degree angle.

To initiate any radiograph, place the film in the mouth and set the positioning indication device (PIO) perpendicular to the film. For mandibular cheek teeth, this is the correct placement. For the maxillary premolars and molars, rotate the beam to a 45-degree angle. For the incisors and mandibular canines rotate 20 degrees. For the maxillary canines an additional rotation 20 degrees lateral is necessary to avoid super imposition of the first and second premolars.

Step 4: Setting the Exposure

If you are using a machine where you set the exposure manually, you will need to set up a technique chart similar to one for a standard (large) unit. The good news is that there is only one variable that needs to be adjusted.

If you are utilizing the computer-controlled system, set the buttons for the species, size of the patient, and tooth to be imaged. If you have correctly set the machine and the image is incorrectly exposed, the easiest way to adjust is to change the F setting. By pressing this button, you will see the numbers go up on both sides. The one on the left is the F number and the one on the right is the exposure time. If you continue to press the button it will continue to increase the exposure until you reach 9 when it will markedly lower and the F number will go back to 1. If the radiograph is overexposed (too dark) lower the F number by 1. If it is underexposed (too light) increase the number by 1. Continue this process until you have the film that you want. Generally, the F number will be the same for all radiographs once you have discovered the correct setting for your machine start at that number in future sessions.

Step 5: Exposing the Radiograph

Dental radiograph machines have a hand-held switch to expose the radiograph. If it is possible, leave the room prior to exposing the radiograph. If it is not, stand at least 6 feet away at a 90- to 130-degree angle to the primary beam (meaning to the side or back of the tube head, not in front or behind). Once everything is set, press the button. It is important to remember, that these switches are “dead man’s.” This means if you let up during the exposure, it will stop the production of x-ray beams. On a standard unit, this will make a light radiograph, on a computer controlled one it will give an error message and you will need to start over. Make sure you hold the button down until the machine stops beeping.

Step 6: Developing the Radiograph

The most economical way to develop the radiograph is coffee cups filled with dental developing solutions in your darkroom. (Using chemicals other than products for dental radiology will result in inferior film quality)

Although developing films in a darkroom can produce quality films, the use of a chair side developer has several distinct advantages.

1.  The chair side developer also allows you to easily judge when development time is correct and be able to evaluate your films in only 1–2 minutes.

2.  The technician does not leave the room and can still monitor the patient.

3.  The units take up very little space, minimize chemistry use, clean up easily and store quickly.

To develop films, begin by peeling back the covering layers from the film, taking care to handle the film only by the edges. Use a film clip to grasp the corner of the film and place it in the developer. When developing a size 4 film, make sure to immerse the entire film in the liquid to ensure that the whole film gets developed. Develop the film until an image is just visible (sight developing). Then rinse the film briefly in a water bath and place the film in the fixer for one minute until partially fixed. The film may be evaluated at this time but should be placed back in the fixer for an additional 10 minutes to ensure complete fixation (archival quality). When completely fixed, the film becomes clear and will lose all traces of a greenish color. The film should then be thoroughly rinsed in running water or placed in a clean water bath for 10–15 minutes. This is followed by a final rinse to remove all traces of fixer. Be sure to remove the clip and rinse all film surfaces thoroughly. Traces of fixer remaining on a dental film give it a characteristic “slick” feel, therefore, rinse the film under running water while gently rubbing the film between your fingers, for a few seconds, until the film does not feel slick. The film is then placed in drying clips overnight to dry. Make sure to dry the film completely to ensure that they do not stick together.

Be sure to change the solutions whenever the developing and fixation times seem to be slowing down. This will occur after you have developed and fixed around 20 smaller (#0 or #2) films, or 10–15 larger (#4) films. Use of exhausted chemistry results in poor image quality and hazy images.

Speaker Information
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B.A. Niemiec
Southern California Veterinary Dental Specialties
San Diego, CA, USA

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