Dental Radiology for Dental Assisting Exam Study Guide

Updated on Jun 23, 2011

Practice problems for this study guide can be found at:

Dental Radiology for Dental Assisting Exam Practice Problems

The dental assistant is trained to obtain both intraoral (film placed inside the patient’s mouth) and extraoral (film placed outside the patient’s mouth) radiographs. There are two types of intraoral radiographs, which record images of the teeth and the supporting structures. The radiographs show the outline, dimension, and positions of the teeth. The supporting structures viewed are the alveolar bone, the lamina dura, the periodontal ligament, and the membrane space. Radiographs can reveal restorations with amalgam overhangs, restorations that are failing, recurrent decay on a tooth, interproximal caries, calculus levels, crestal bone levels, internal pulp pathology, anatomy and pathology in the root area, and surrounding bony structures and occlusal relationships.

Radiation is used to produce radiographs (X-ray films) and can be biologically damaging. Every exposure has the ability to damage living tissue. Therefore, the operator and patient must be properly protected, and stringent infection control techniques must be followed. The operator must also follow proper exposing and processing techniques for the safety of all.

Concepts and Skills

Radiology is a central tool in dental diagnosis and treatment. This topic is broken down into nine concepts and skills: 

  • Intraoral Radiographic Technique
  • Processing Intraoral Radiographs
  • The Generation of X-rays in the X-ray Tube Head
  • Characteristics of the Image
  • Radiation Biology and Protection
  • Radiographic Presentation of Lesions
  • Extraoral Radiography
  • Digital Imaging
  • Patient Management

We will present questions relating to each of these areas of dental radiology. The outline below chronicles current information regarding exposing, processing, mounting, and interpreting both intraoral and extraoral radiographs.

Intraoral Radiographic Technique

There are two intraoral X-ray techniques used in dentistry. The oldest technique is the bisecting angle technique, and the newer is the paralleling technique, which is widely taught in all dental schools.

The film is sealed in a packet to protect it. If this is placed backward in the mouth, the result is an image of low density with a herringbone pattern on the film.

The speed of the film is determined by the size of the silver halide crystals and is classified A through F, F being the fastest.

Types of Intraoral Surveys

The examination of a complete area with radiographs is referred to as a survey. Intraoral surveys could include a full-mouth series of films or a localized area, such as a maxillary cuspid view.


The bitewing radiograph shows both the maxillary and mandibular teeth in occlusion. Bitewings can either be taken horizontally or vertically. The main purpose of a bitewing is to examine the interproximal surfaces, mesial and distal, and the height of the crestal bone level. Other purposes include detection of overhanging restorations, pathology of the pulp, and detection of location of calculus. Bitewings are usually taken once or twice a year depending on the patient’s caries rate and level of oral home care. A bicuspid/premolar bitewing radiograph should be placed to include the distal half of the mandibular cuspid. The standard film size used for bitewings is size 2. Size 0 or 1 can be used for children with primary teeth. Size 3 is specially made for an extra long bitewing; however, it is seldom used.


The periapical radiograph shows the most accurate image of crowns, roots, and supporting structures of a particular area of the oral cavity. Supporting tissues examined in a periapical radiograph include the alveolar bone, lamina dura, periodontal ligament, periodontal membrane space, and 2–3 mm of supporting tissue beyond the apex of the tooth. Periapicals are used to examine the anatomy and pathology of a particular area and generally use size 1 or 2 film. Size 1 film would most likely be used to radiograph the incisors and cuspids of adult patients.

Occlusal Films

Occlusal films examine the complete arch of teeth, maxillary or mandibular, all in one view. The occlusal film, a size 4 film, is much larger than a bitewing or periapical film. This film is used to locate objects present in the oral cavity, along with locating supernumerary teeth (extra teeth), impacted teeth, root tips of extracted teeth that were left behind, tumors, and cysts. Other uses of the occlusal film include the examination of the maxillary sinuses, large sections of the jaw, and to determine the presence of any jaw fractures or pathologies such as cysts and malignancies. The two main techniques for exposing an occlusal film are topographical and cross-sectional.

Basic Principles of Intraoral Survey

The intraoral survey, full mouth X-ray (FMX) series, consists of 18 to 20 individual films showing the entire oral cavity. The full mouth series consists of bitewings and periapicals. Areas of the oral cavity are grouped together and films are taken of each quadrant, usually only every three to five years. Occlusal films are another intraoral film; however, they are not included in a full-mouth series.

Paralleling Technique

The paralleling technique is widely used in dental radiology because it produces a quality, anatomically correct image so that no retakes are needed. Having no retakes or minimal retakes reduces the patient’s exposure to radiation. The paralleling technique is an exposure technique in which the film is placed parallel to the long axis of the tooth and the central beam is directed at a right angle to both the tooth and the film.

Infection Control

Infection control must be followed in exposing radiographs. PPE—gloves, mask, lab coat, and eyewear—is always worn by the operator. Protective barriers are placed on the exposure button, the X-ray unit buttons, and on the X-ray tube head and position indicating device (PID). 

Disposable film holders are used along with reusable film holders that are sterilized. The treatment room is disinfected, but no antiseptic agents are used. Infection control measures must be followed while processing the films. However, immersing a contaminated exposed film packet in a disinfecting solution will destroy the image.

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