Understanding a Bone Density Scan
Most of us can find reasons for putting off a mammogram, a Pap smear, a colonoscopy. All that pinching, prodding and prep is nothing to look forward to. But if your doctor’s prescribed a bone mineral density test (the most common one is called a DXA—for “dual energy X-ray absorptiometry”—test), there’s no excuse to skip it. For starters, it’s painless. For another, it couldn’t be easier—all you have to do is lie on a table fully clothed. And it takes just a few minutes for the machine to get a picture of your bones using X-ray-like technology. But the most important reason of all? It helps your doctor assess your bone health, diagnose osteoporosis and determine your risk for a bone fracture. And if you’re taking medication for osteoporosis, regular follow-up DXAs can help your doctor see if your treatment is working.
The answer is yes if…
- You are a woman age 65 or older
- You are a man age 70 or older
- You break a bone (any bone!) after age 50
- You’re a woman who’s gone through menopause and you have other risk factors (such as an
unhealthy diet or an inactive lifestyle)
- Your spinal X-ray showed a break or bone loss
- You’ve noticed height loss of half an inch or more within one year
A DXA test usually measures the bone density in your hip and spine. It’s sometimes used for other bones, like your forearm.
Your doctor will be very interested in a number that you get from the DXA test called a T-score. The T-score tells your doctor how your bones compare to those of a young, healthy adult.
If your T-score is -1 or higher, you have normal bone density.
If your T-score is between -1 and -2.5, you have low bone mass, also called osteopenia.
If your T-score is -2.5 or lower, you have osteoporosis. You are at risk for breaking or fracturing a bone.
Source: National Osteoporosis Foundation
The National Osteoporosis Foundation suggests that women who have postmenopausal osteoporosis get a bone mineral density test once every two years (or as often as recommended by their doctor). It’s important to get the scan because it can tell your doctor if your current treatment is doing enough to slow bone loss—or if a different treatment might work better.
- Don’t forget to discuss the results of your DXA scan with your primary healthcare provider. Schedule an appointment with your doctor for after you get tested. Be sure to talk about the test results, your risk factors and whether lifestyle changes (better nutrition, vitamin supplements, more exercise) or medication would be helpful.
- Go to the same facility every time. Bone density test results can vary from machine to machine. Getting your DXA test done at the same location each time, preferably on the same machine, helps your doctor better analyze any changes in your bone health.
- It’s painless.
- It takes mere minutes.
- You don’t even have to get changed!