Do You Need a DXA Scan to Test for Osteoporosis?

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A bone density test called a Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DXA/DEXA) scan of your hip, spine, and wrist will determine how strong your bones are—or if you’re at risk for osteoporosis, the bone-thinning disease that can lead to painful and disabling fractures. But do you need the exam? Yes… if you’re over age 65—or 50 with a previous bone fracture or risk factors for osteoporosis.

What is a DXA Scan?

A DXA scan, is a painless procedure that measures the mineral content of your bones. You’ll get a result that indicates whether your bones are normal, have low bone mass (a condition known as osteopenia), or are significantly below normal, which is osteoporosis.

The Importance of Strong Bones

Your bones are constantly changing as new bone replaces old bone. When you lose bone more quickly than it is replaced, your bones weaken and become susceptible to fractures.

When you have osteoporosis, even a minor fall can break a bone. There are 1.5 million fractures each year in the United States caused by osteoporosis, including fractures of the spine, hip, and wrist—the most common areas affected by the condition.

And these fractures can be devastating. For example, half the people who break a hip never are able to walk again without some type of assistance. Many people with osteoporosis need long-term care.

Risk Factors

Because osteoporosis doesn’t usually have symptoms until you unexpectedly break a bone, the bone density test can spot thinning bone (osteopenia) before it develops into osteoporosis.

Although osteoporosis can affect men and women, it’s primarily a disease of women, especially after menopause when women lose estrogen, the hormone that helps the body maintain bone density.

Other risk factors include:

  • Having had a fracture as an adult
  • Being thin
  • Family history of osteoporosis
  • Smoking
  • An inactive lifestyle
  • Not getting enough calcium
  • Going through menopause before age 45
  • Being Caucasian or Asian
  • Having used steroids for a long time

What’s Next?

You and your doctor will use the information from the bone density test to decide what treatment, if any, you may need and what preventive steps you can take.

How to Prevent Osteoporosis

According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, you can help prevent osteoporosis by taking these steps:

  • Make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D. Eat a well-balanced diet, including lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Limit alcohol.

Treating Osteoporosis

If you have osteoporosis, your doctor may recommend an osteoporosis medication, such as biphosphonates, teriparatide denosumab, or selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERMs) that can either slow bone loss or help to form new bone.

Like any medications, these medications have risks and not all of these medications are necessarily right for you. So be sure you and your doctor discuss the pros and cons of taking any medication and weigh their risks with the serious risk of not treating osteoporosis.

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Rebecca M. Shepherd, MD, FACP

Rebecca M. Shepherd, MD, FACP is a physician with Arthritis & Rheumatology. Dr. Shepherd’s areas of expertise include osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and autoimmune disease.

Education: Medical School–Vanderbilt University School of Medicine; Residency and fellowship–Washington University.

Call: 717-299-1301

About LG Health Hub

The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.


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