Skip to content
Font Size
A
A
A

Bone Scans and Bone Health Screenings

When should you get a bone density scan, and why?
By
WebMD Feature

A bone density scan can detect thinning bones at an early stage. If you already have osteoporosis, bone scans can also tell you how fast the disease is progressing.

But an abnormal bone scan can create as many questions as it answers. Who should get a bone density scan, and what do the results mean? If your bone density is below normal, what can you expect, and what should you do?

Recommended Related to Osteoporosis

Calcium: Gotta Have It for Healthy Bones

Got milk? That's not just an advertising slogan. It's a legitimate question. Milk and other calcium-rich foods are an important part of a bone-healthy lifestyle that can not only reduce the risk of fractures as you get older, but may also protect against certain cancers. Many people have also taken to popping calciumsupplements as a preventive measure against disease. But can they really help? A recent report published in the Harvard Health Letter shows no connection between high calcium intake...

Read the Calcium: Gotta Have It for Healthy Bones article > >

A Date With DEXA

Most bone scans use a technology called DEXA (for dual energy X-ray absorptiometry). In a DEXA scan, a person lies on a table while a technician aims a scanner mounted on a long arm. (Think of the machine that X-rays your teeth at the dentist; the difference is that this test uses very low energy radiation.)

"DEXA currently is the easiest, most standardized form of bone density testing, so that's what we use," says Mary Rhee, MD, MS, an endocrinologist and assistant professor of medicine at Emory University in Atlanta.

The DEXA scanner uses beams of very low-energy radiation to determine the density of the bone. The amount of radiation is tiny: about one-tenth of a chest X-ray. The test is painless, and considered completely safe. Pregnant women should not get DEXA scans because the developing baby shouldn’t be exposed to radiation, no matter how low the dose, if possible.

Measurements are usually taken at the hip, and sometimes the spine and other sites. Insurance or Medicare generally pays for the test in women considered at risk for osteoporosis, or those already diagnosed with osteoporosis or osteopenia.

Other less commonly used technologies can measure bone density. They include:

  • Variations of DEXA, which measure bone density in the forearm, finger, or heel.
  • Quantitative computed tomography (QCT). Essentially a CAT scan of the bones, QCT provides more detailed images than DEXA.
  • Ultrasound of the bones in the heel, leg, kneecap, or other areas.

While all of these can determine bone density and osteoporosis risk, "DEXA is the most important test and is the gold standard," says Felicia Cosman, MD, clinical director for the National Osteoporosis Foundation.

1 | 2 | 3 | 4
Next Article:

Osteoporosis Glossary

  • Bone Mineral Density - A measurement of the amount of calcium and minerals in bone tissue.
  • Calcium - A mineral in (and vital to) your bones. If your body lacks calcium, it takes it from bones.
  • DEXA (dual energy X-ray absorptiometry) - a test used to measure bone mineral density.
  • Osteoporosis - A decrease in bone density, which increase the risk of fractures.
  • Vitamin D - A vitamin that helps your body absorb calcium.
  • View All Terms

How do you exercise for strong bones?