Should You Get a Bone Density Test?

March 2, 2022

It’s quite common for the thickness and strength of our bones to decrease as we age beyond our 50s. However, regular bone density screenings aren’t worthwhile for everyone. Most doctors will not recommend a bone density test unless you have specific risk factors. In this post, we’ll explain how bone density testing works and how to determine if you might need one.

 

What is a bone density test and how does it work?

A bone density test is a way to assess the strength of your bones by measuring how many minerals are packed into a segment of bone. The most commonly used method for testing bone density is the dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan, which uses very low levels of x-rays to measure how dense your bones are.

If you undergo a DEXA scan at a hospital or medical imaging center, the test usually consists of lying on a padded platform while a mechanical arm passes over your body to scan your hips and spine. The test can take about 10-30 minutes, but the amount of radiation you’re exposed to is less than a standard chest X-ray.

There are also small, portable machines called peripheral devices that can measure bone density in places like your hand or foot. These instruments are often used at health fairs and community screening events. However, peripheral measurements are not considered as accurate as scans of the hips or spine – so your doctor may still recommend a scan from a full-size DEXA machine if they think you may be at risk of osteoporosis or other bone density issues.

 

Who should get bone density testing?

Statistically, women over age 65 are at greatest risk for osteoporosis – making them good candidates for bone density testing. If you are outside of that demographic, you may still want to talk with your doctor about the risks (e.g. x-ray exposure, insurance costs, etc.) and benefits of bone density testing if you have any of these risk factors for serious bone loss:

  • Breaking a bone in a minor accident
  • Having rheumatoid arthritis
  • History of smoking or heavy drinking
  • Having a low body weight
  • Having a family history of osteoporosis
  • Using corticosteroid drugs for three months or more (long-term use of steroid medications, such as prednisone, interferes with the bone-rebuilding process — which can lead to osteoporosis)
  • Having a very low vitamin D level

If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis or at risk for serious bone loss, most doctors recommend bone density testing once every two years. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule if you have certain conditions or take certain medications.

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