Some dentists recommend patients get dental X-rays every year—even though the vast majority of patients can go two to three years between X-rays. There are only a small number of legitimate reasons why new X-rays might be prudent after just one year…

  • Your dentist saw some sign that a problem could be developing on last year’s X-rays. He/she might have made a note on your chart to “watch this” and want to take an X-ray to see if the situation is growing worse and requires action.
  • You have developed new symptoms. 

Dental insurance plans typically will pay for “bitewing” X-rays (showing the upper and lower back teeth in a single view) every year, so some dentists reason that skipping them deprives patients of a service they could have without any out-of-pocket costs. (Other types of dental X-rays might be covered less frequently.) Dental practices have a financial incentive to take annual X-rays, too—doing so significantly increases the income they generate from patients with healthy teeth and gums. Few dentists set out to overtreat or overcharge patients, but many were trained to take new X-rays each year, and in this fee-for–service profession, they have little motivation to question whether that’s really necessary.

Unfortunately, patients who do not have dental insurance might have to pay perhaps $60 to $80 for a set of bitewing X-rays and potentially more for other types of X-rays. Taking unnecessary X-rays also subjects patients to unnecessary radiation. The amount of radiation received from typical dental X-rays is small, but the effects of radiation exposure are cumulative.

What to do: If you have had dental X-rays taken within the past two years and your dentist recommends taking another set, ask why they are needed. Turn down these X-rays if the dentist cannot point to a specific reason such as those noted earlier.