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Mesothelioma Diagnosis: X-Ray Imaging

X-rays are the oldest form of medical imaging.  Discovered in 1895 by the German physicist Wilhelm Rottgen, x-ray imaging enabled physicians for the first time to diagnose health- and medical-related problems in the body’s interior spaces in a non-invasive manner. The creation of x-ray imaging, as well as the technologies developed in its wake, truly revolutionized the manner in which diseases and other conditions could be identified and treated. Rottgen received the first Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in discovering and systematically studying x-rays.

How X-Rays Work

X-rays are a form of electromagnetic energy. They operate outside of the spectrum of direct human perception, but have applications for a variety of human pursuits, as well as a number of possible effects on human tissues. X-rays are generated by specific tools and the energy emanated from these tools ‘passes through’ some types of objects and is absorbed by others. X-ray imaging exploits the manner in which this energy is absorbed and/or passed through a body and when it is applied for medical purposes, x-rays are able to visualize the internal structures of specific parts of the human body. X-rays are especially good at imaging bone and similar structures, but they are also able to image certain kinds of soft tissues as well. For example, chest x-rays may be able to identify pleural effusions or certain types of lung cancer in some patients, while an abdominal x-ray may visualize ascites or a related peritoneal disorder.

X-Rays and Diagnosis

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer typically affecting the lining of the lungs.  The cancer is highly aggressive and is resistant to many standard cancer treatments making it a difficult disease to treat effectively.  Due to its complex growth pattern and symptoms that are similar to other diseases of the lungs, it is also a difficult disease to diagnose.

However, as useful as they for any number of other purposes, x-rays are not helpful for directly imaging or diagnosing  malignant mesothelioma. X-rays do not have enough soft tissue resolution to properly image pleural surfaces, so they are not able to differentiate between normal and malignant pleural tissues in the same way that CT or MRI can. X-rays may be show an effusion, but they cannot show the actual malignancy.


X-rays, like all technologies utilizing ionizing radiation, can have serious effects on human tissues, so precautions must be taken to reduce the radiation burden on tissues under study. The areas in which the x-rays are directly applied must have limited exposure windows and those tissues not under study should be properly shielded from the radiation of the procedure.

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