12: Tomography and panoramic radiography

Tomography and panoramic radiography


Conventional tomography is a specialized radiographic technique developed originally for producing radiographs that showed only a section or slice of a patient. A useful analogy is to regard the technique as one that enables the patient to be imaged in slices – like a loaf of sliced bread (see Fig. 12.1). Each individual tomographic image (or slice) shows the tissues within that section sharply defined and in focus. The section is thus referred to as the focal plane or focal trough. Tissues and structures outside the tomographic section are not visible because they are very blurred and out of focus.

Production of each conventional tomographic slice required controlled, accurate movement of both the X-ray tubehead and the film during the exposure, thereby making it different from all the routine radiographic techniques described in previous chapters. As will be described later in this chapter, by varying the size of the X-ray beam and the type of equipment movement employed it proved possible to change the shape of the tomographic layer from a straight (linear) line (see Fig. 12.2) to a curve, and ultimately to the approximate horseshoe shape of the dental arch, providing an overall panoramic image of all the teeth and their supporting structures – the so-called dental panoramic tomograph (DPT) or panoramic radiograph (see Fig. 12.3).

While panoramic tomography remains very popular, conventional linear tomography has essentially been superseded in radiography by computed tomography, which enables computer-generated tomographic sectional images to be created. Cone beam computed tomography (CBCT) is described in Chapter 13.

Tomographic theory

The theory of panoramic tomography is complicated. Nevertheless, an understanding of how the resultant radiographic image is produced and which structures are in fact being imaged, is necessary for a critical evaluation and the interpretation of this type of radiograph.

As an explanatory introduction to how the approximately horseshoe-shaped, curved tomographic slice or focal trough in panoramic tomography is produced, the theory of tomographic movement and three methods for producing linear and curved tomographic slices are first described. These include:

Principle of tomographic movement

As stated, tomography requires controlled, accurate movement of both the X-ray tubehead and the film. They are therefore linked together. During the exposure, the X-ray tubehead moves in one direction while the film moves in the opposite direction, as shown in Fig. 12.4. The point at the centre of this rotating movement will appear in focus on the resultant radiograph, since its shadow will appear in the same place on the film throughout the exposure. All other points will appear blurred or out of focus.

Broad-beam linear tomography

The principle of tomography illustrated in Fig. 12.4 shows a very thin X-ray beam producing one point (O) – the centre of rotation – in focus on the film. To produce a section or slice of the patient in focus, a broad X-ray beam is used. For each part of the beam, there is a separate centre of rotation, all of which lie in the same focal plane. The resultant tomography will therefore show all these points sharply defined. The principle of broad-beam tomography is illustrated in Fig. 12.5.

Slit or narrow-beam linear tomography

A similar straight linear tomograph can also be produced by modifying the equipment and using a narrow or slit X-ray beam. The equipment is designed so that the narrow beam traverses the film exposing different parts of the film during the tomographic movement. Only by the end of the tomographic movement has the entire film been exposed. The following equipment modifications are necessary:

The principle of narrow-beam linear tomography using this equipment is illustrated in Fig. 12.6.

Narrow-beam rotational tomography

In this type of tomography, narrow-beam equipment is again used, but the synchronized movement of the X-ray tubehead and the cassette carrier are designed to rotate in the horizontal plane, in a circular path around the head, with a single centre of rotation. The resultant focal trough is curved and forms the arc of a circle, as shown in Fig. 12.7.

Panoramic tomography

The dental arch, though curved, is not the shape of an arc of a circle. To produce the required elliptical, horseshoe-shaped focal trough, panoramic tomographic equipment employs the principle of narrow-beam rotational tomography, but uses two or more centres of rotation.

There are several dental panoramic units available; they all work on the same principle but differ in how the rotational movement is modified to image the elliptical dental arch. Four main methods (see Fig. 12.8) have been used including:

However, the focal troughs are produced, it should be remembered that they are three-dimensional. The focal trough is thus sometimes described as a focal corridor. All structures within the corridor, including the mandibular and maxillary teeth, will be in focus on the final radiograph. The vertical height of the corridor is determined by the shape and height of the X-ray beam and the size of the film, as shown in Fig. 12.9.

As in other forms of narrow-beam tomography, a different part of the focal trough is imaged throughout the exposure. The final radiograph is thus built up of sections (see Fig. 12.10), each created separately, as the equipment orbits around the patient’s head.

Unfortunately, although the final radiograph shows all the teeth and their supporting structures, the tomographic image quality is generally inferior to that obtained using intraoral radiographic techniques and interpretation is more complicated.

Selection criteria

In the UK, the 2013 Selection Criteria for Dental Radiography booklet suggests panoramic radiography in general practice in the following circumstances:

In addition, in dental hospitals panoramic radiographs are also used to assess:

The 2013 Selection Criteria specifically states that ‘panoramic radiographs should only be taken in the presence of specific clinical signs and symptoms’, and goes on to say that ‘there is no justification for review panoramic radiography at arbitrary intervals’.


Although varying in design and appearance, all panoramic units consist of four main components:

Traditional panoramic equipment was designed to use indirect-action radiographic film in an extraoral cassette as the image receptor. With the advent of digital imaging several variations in image receptor now exist, including:

Jan 12, 2015 | Posted by in Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology | Comments Off on 12: Tomography and panoramic radiography
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