Theoretical foundation and design considerations of a clinical feasible x-ray phase contrast imaging technique were presented in this paper. Different from the analysis of imaging phase object with weak absorption in literature, we proposed a new formalism for in-line phase-contrast imaging to analyze the effects of four clinically important factors on the phase contrast. These are the body parts attenuation, the spatial coherence of spherical waves from a finite-size focal spot, and polychromatic x-ray and radiation doses to patients for clinical applications. The theory presented in this paper can be applied widely in diagnostic x-ray imaging procedures. As an example, computer simulations were conducted and optimal design parameters were derived for clinical mammography. The results of phantom experiments were also presented which validated the theoretical analysis and computer simulations. © 2003 American Association of Physicists in Medicine.