Shoulder xray from urgent care

Everything You Need to Know about X-rays at Urgent Care Clinics

May 17, 2024 Urgent Care Share:

When you have a broken bone, your first instinct may be to rush to the emergency room. But in most cases, an urgent care clinic is a faster, cheaper alternative.

You may be surprised to learn that urgent care clinics have x-ray and other imaging services to aid providers in diagnostics and patient care. Learn more in our guide to everything you need to know about x-rays at urgent care clinics.

How X-rays Work

An X-ray is a type of medical imaging in which electromagnetic radiation is used to create images of the inside of the body. X-rays are produced when electrons hit a metal target in the x-ray machine, creating radiation.

When X-rays are directed through the body, different tissues absorb them at varying rates. Bones, which are dense, absorb more X-rays and appear white on X-ray images; muscles and fat, which are less dense, appear gray. Air absorbs very few X-rays, so it appears black.

After the X-rays pass through the body, they hit a detector (such as a special film or a digital sensor). This detector captures the pattern of X-rays that passes through the body and generates an image that reflects these differences. This image shows the different structures inside the body in various shades of black, white, and gray.

Types of Urgent Care X-rays

At urgent care clinics, providers most commonly order bone or chest X-rays. Bone X-rays can be targeted at any part of the skeleton, including arms, legs, the spine, or the skull. Bone X-rays are excellent for showing the integrity of the bone structure, the alignment of bones, and the presence of any cracks, breaks, or other abnormalities in the bone tissue.

Chest X-rays are used to examine the organs and structures within the chest cavity, including the heart, lungs, and large blood vessels. These can show fluid in or around the lungs, abnormal masses, and problems in the size or shape of the heart.

Less commonly, an urgent care provider may order an abdominal or sinus X-ray as an initial diagnostic tool.

How X-Rays are Used at Urgent Care Clinics

Your urgent care doctor can use X-rays to diagnose several conditions; however, the most common reasons X-rays are used in an urgent care setting are for diagnosing fractures and pneumonia.


If your urgent care doctor suspects a fracture, your provider will order multiple images from different angles to obtain a comprehensive view of your bone. On an X-ray, normal bones appear as a continuous line or pattern. A fracture is seen as a distinct break or crack in this pattern.

Your X-ray will help your urgent care provider determine:

  • The severity of your fracture. An X-ray will show whether a bone has been completely or partially broken.
  • The type of fracture. A simple fracture might appear as a single line across the bone, while a comminuted fracture shows the bone shattered into several pieces.
  • The position of the fracture. Imaging will reveal whether the bones are aligned properly (a non-displaced fracture) or if the pieces have shifted out of line (displaced fracture).

Your urgent care provider will review your X-ray, but it may also be overread by a radiologist to confirm the findings.


Doctors typically order chest X-rays to diagnose pneumonia when patients present with symptoms such as persistent cough, chest pain, and shortness of breath – especially if these symptoms do not improve after initial treatment. Chest X-rays allow doctors to visually confirm the presence of infection in the lungs.

When a patient has pneumonia, air spaces in the lungs may be filled with fluid, pus, or cellular debris. On an x-ray, this fluid or pus appears white or cloudy. A chest X-ray helps your urgent care provider determine:

  • The location and extent of infection
  • Type of pneumonia
  • Potential complications, such as a pleural effusion or a collapsed lung

Chest X-rays are valuable not only for diagnosing pneumonia but also for ruling out other causes of similar symptoms.

Advantages of Getting X-rays at Urgent Care

There are significant advantages to getting your x-ray for non-emergency needs performed at an urgent care clinic.

  • Rapid diagnosis. With reduced wait times at urgent care clinics compared to emergency rooms, patients can get their X-rays done faster, leading to quicker evaluations and treatment.
  • Convenience. Many primary care doctors do not have on-site imaging services. Patients who visit an urgent care clinic for X-rays are able to receive diagnostic services and initial treatment in the same location without having to travel to an imaging center or hospital.
  • Availability. It’s rarely convenient to need an X-ray. And it can be even more difficult to schedule that need into normal business hours. Urgent care clinics are open on weekends and have extended weekday hours so you can get an X-ray when you need one.

If your X-ray reveals a need for specialized treatment, your urgent care provider can quickly refer you to an appropriate specialist. In the meantime, your provider will provide initial care and recommendations for managing your condition until you can get further treatment.

What to Expect from Urgent Care X-ray

If your urgent care doctor determines that you need an x-ray during your visit, you may be asked to change into a gown or remove jewelry to ensure that no metal objects interfere with the imaging process.

Your X-ray technician will guide you in how to position your body to get the best imaging results. Depending on the part of your body being X-rayed, you may be asked to stand, sit, or lie down on an X-ray table. You’ll also be asked to wear a lead apron or other protective shield to cover parts of your body that aren’t being imaged to protect against unnecessary exposure to radiation.

The actual X-ray process is very quick and only takes a few seconds per image. The X-ray technician will position the machine and then step behind a protective barrier or into an adjoining room to activate the machine. The process is similar to taking a picture and is completely painless.

Once the images are taken, you can change back into your clothes. Your urgent care provider will review the images to make an initial diagnosis before sharing the results and developing a treatment plan.

X-ray Limitations

X-rays are valuable diagnostic tools, but they aren’t effective in every medical situation. You may need other imaging or diagnostics for:

  • Soft tissue problems. X-rays are great at visualizing bones but are less effective at assessing soft tissues such as muscles, ligaments, tendons, and internal organs. Injuries or conditions affecting these tissues may require MRI or ultrasound, which provide better soft tissue contrast.
  • Early stages of infection. In the early stages of bone or joint infections, x-rays may not show any abnormalities. Other imaging modalities, such as MRI, are more sensitive and better able to detect the early signs of infection.
  • Vascular conditions. X-rays are not suitable for examining blood vessels and detecting vascular conditions such as aneurysms or blockages. These require specific vascular imaging techniques.
  • Minor fractures and hairline cracks. X-rays are great at detecting fractures, but small or hairline fractures can sometimes be missed – especially if the x-ray is taken soon after the injury. If a fracture is still suspected in spite of a negative x-ray, a follow-up MRI or a repeat x-ray in a few days may be needed.

Because of the risk of radiation exposure, pregnant women and young children may require alternate imaging methods. Your urgent care provider will choose the most appropriate imaging technique based on your symptoms, medical history, and clinical needs.

If you need an X-ray, an urgent care clinic is a great first place to go. Your urgent care providers can diagnose and treat many common issues such as broken bones and pneumonia. If further imaging such as an MRI or CT Scan is needed, your urgent care doctor can refer you to an outside imaging center.

MedHelp urgent care clinics in Birmingham are equipped with digital x-ray technology on-site to aid in easy and accurate diagnostics for our patients. We also have ultrasound technology to provide a more comprehensive range of diagnostic capabilities.

Got a possible broken bone?

Get quick diagnosis and treatment at MedHelp urgent care clinics. With several clinics in the Birmingham metro area, we’re where you need us when you need us most.