Do you really need an x-ray?

One of the most common reasons patients come to an urgent care center is acute musculoskeletal injuries, which often require x-rays. X-rays can be an important diagnostic tool in the evaluation of issues ranging from injuries to limbs to chest pain.

Injuries and illnesses can happen to anyone and at any time. When they’re severe enough to require medical attention, urgent care centers can often provide the necessary diagnostic testing and treatment, where primary care physicians are not available, nor is the emergency room not necessarily needed. But how do healthcare providers determine if an injury requires an x-ray?

Examples of x-ray injuries:

● A weekend warrior who twisted his knee hiking

● A high school basketball player is out with an ankle injury

● A working mom with possible pneumonia

● A recent retiree with a deformed wrist after a fall

Weekend warrior’s twisted knee

Generally no, she doesn’t need an x-ray.  Most common knee injuries cannot be easily detected using an x-ray. More often than not, a twisted knee will result in a sprained ligament or torn meniscus. These are soft tissues that won’t show up on an x-ray. The exception to this rule of thumb is when you are unable to bear any weight after a knee injury.

The basketball player’s ankle injury

Yes! He should get an x-ray. An x-ray is essential for diagnosing fractures, or broken bones. If you have a sprained ankle, you don’t need an x-ray. However, it might be difficult to tell the difference between a sprain or a bone fracture, so if your symptoms worsen over time, it’s best to seek medical attention.

Working mom’s pneumonia

Yes. Chest x-rays can help providers diagnose pneumonia and are useful in patients with other signs of pneumonia such as fever, productive cough, difficulty breathing, and chest pain. 

Retiree’s wrist injury with deformity

Most definitely—wrists are made up of a large number of bones after all. Like the ankle, providers will want to check for fractures. The images will also help with the decision as to how best to stabilize and splint the fracture and guide the referral to an orthopedics specialist for follow-up.

What's the average cost of an x-ray?

It depends on what needs to be examined. Other factors include your insurance coverage and the hospital network where you seek care.  X-rays tend to cost more if they are performed in hospitals as well.  For example, one chest x-ray taken at a well-known, established hospital was quoted at $517! Using imaging centers with their own x-rays costs less typically.  Also, if you carry insurance, the cost of your x-ray may be covered by your insurance provider (check with them on the use case of the x-ray). X-Ray services are the most common reasons to go to urgent care.

See our prices on co-pays and same-day visits without insurance.

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant