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Ultrasound Takes Osteoporosis by the Heel

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Feb. 20, 2001 -- New ultrasound devices that take measurements from the heel of the foot and do not use dangerous radiation are expected to put bone health checkups within the reach of many more patients and doctors.

British researchers report in the February Journal of Bone and Mineral Research that "quantitative ultrasound," or QUS, is as accurate as X-ray bone mineral density scans for identifying patients who are at risk for fractures within the next few years.

Study co-author Glen M. Blake, PhD, tells WebMD that quantitative ultrasound looks to be a "cheaper, safer" way to identify people who are developing osteoporosis, a softening of the bones that increases the chance of bone fracture. As people age, most develop osteoporosis and are then more likely to fracture a hip or other bone. A number of treatments that can slow and perhaps even reverse osteoporosis are now available. Blake, who is consultant physicist at St. Guy's hospital in London, expects the new quantitative ultrasound devices to help physicians make earlier identification of patients who might benefit from such treatments.

Claus C. Gluer, PhD, tells WebMD that QUS machines are likely to turn up in many more clinics and doctor's offices because they cost only about one-fourth as much as conventional bone-scanning devices and are easier to use. Typically, the patient sits and places a foot into the QUS machine, which measures bone health in the area of the heel and Achilles' tendon. Gluer is professor of medical physics at the clinic for diagnostic radiology at Christian Albrects University in Kiel, Germany.

Blake says, "Our data validates QUS as a method for identifying patients with osteoporosis. QUS has the additional advantage of not using the type of potentially dangerous radiation used on older methods for detecting changes in bone mineral density. That means that QUS will be a less expensive procedure and that physicians will be able to use it without the extensive safety measures now required by the regulatory agencies."

Blake's study compared quantitative ultrasound readings to axial bone mineral density in over 1,000 women. Some had risk factors such as having had a fracture not related to a fall or other cause, or a family history of osteoporosis. Among the women who had gone through menopause, the investigators found that one-third of those who also had a clinical risk factor also had osteoporosis, compared to only 12% of women who did not have such risk factors. More than two-thirds of the postmenopausal women who had risk factors had some notable degree of bone thinning.

Gluer, who is working with groups developing international standards for the use of quantitative ultrasound , tells WebMD, "The next question is whether the ultrasound devices can be used to monitor bone health over time. This would help physicians determine whether a treatment for osteoporosis is working for the individual patient."

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