Bone Density Testing

What is a Bone Density Test?

Bone density testing is used to detect osteoporosis, or a deterioration of the bone, in order to determine your risk of a fracture. While this is usually more common in women, it can also be found in men too. Bone density testing measures the calcium and other minerals in your bone and gives a “score” on two different scales to help your doctor diagnose osteopenia or osteoporosis. 

Bone Density Test Age Recommendations

Bone density tests are recommended for all women 65 years old and older, and for any woman with a high risk of fracturing or breaking their bones due to genetics, lifestyle, or other health conditions. Generally, a bone density check is conducted every 2 years. However, if you have osteoporosis, your doctor will likely recommend that you schedule a bone density exam every 1-2 years.

Around the age of 30 our bones density peaks and as we get older they progressively lose mass. Osteoporosis is more common with women because after menopause the rate of bone loss can accelerate. If no steps are proactively taken to conserve bone density, it can quickly turn into a high risk situation. Those who have already suffered a fracture are more likely to suffer another one, or two, especially in the spine.

Some signs and symptoms for a spinal fracture are:

  • Back pain
  • Loss of Height
  • A previous spinal fracture
  • Significant decrease in bone density
  • Low testosterone (in men)

Am I at Risk?

The following list can help determine whether you are at risk for osteoporosis or a fracture:

  • Female
  • Past menopause
  • Advancing age
  • Family history of osteoporosis
  • Thin/small frame
  • Caucasian or Asian descent
  • Early estrogen deficiency
  • Smoker
  • Excessive use of alcohol
  • Low calcium/vitamin D intake
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Presence of risk factors and not currently on a therapy

What to Expect During Your Bone Density Testing

Once you arrive for your exam you will be asked to change into a hospital gown so the area to be scanned is easily accessible. You will be asked to lie on a table and a mechanical arm will pass over the area(s) being scanned. The most common areas to be tested are:

  • Hip
  • Forearm
  • Spine

The reason these areas are tested is that they are the most likely to have strain and break from a fall. Since bone density can vary throughout the bones in your body, multiple places will be scanned. Some physicians may order a scan of the far ends of your body as well, like the hand or foot to account for this variation. A bone density test uses very little radiation so the exposure is very minimal. The exam usually lasts anywhere from 10-30 minutes and is painless.

Bone Density Scan Preparation

There really is no preparation needed for a bone density test. You will want to alert your physician if you have very recently had an exam using a contrasting agent or dye as that may interfere with the results of your exam.

The best preparation for a bone density test can be staving off bone loss in the first place. There are a few ways you can fight bone loss and take preventative measures to keep from losing bone density as you age:

  • Light weight-bearing or resistance exercises.
  • Maintain a healthy diet.
  • Take a calcium and vitamin D supplement
  • Do not smoke or drink in excess
  • Take appropriate medicine as recommended.

What to Expect After Your Bone Density Testing

After your exam, your bone density scan results will be scaled as a T-Score and Z-Score.

The T-Score tells your doctor how your bone density compares to a healthy 30 year old of the same gender. Your score is the number of units that your bone density is above or below normal. Your results will fall into one of the three categories below:

  • -1 and above: Normal bone density.
  • Between -1 and -2.5: You may have osteopenia, which may lead to osteoporosis.
  • -2.5 and below: You likely have osteoporosis.

The Z-score compares your bone density to what is normal in someone your age and body size. Among older adults low bone mineral density is common, so Z-scores can be misleading. A Z-score above -2.0 is normal.

Your doctor will go over the results of your exam at your next scheduled appointment and may prescribe medication or therapies to assist with bone loss prevention.