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Bone Density Scan

What is a Bone Density Scan (DEXA)?

Bone density scanning, also called dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) or bone densitometry, is an enhanced form of x-ray technology that is used to measure bone loss. DEXA is today's established standard for measuring bone mineral density (BMD).
An x-ray (radiograph) is a noninvasive medical test that helps physicians diagnose and treat medical conditions. Imaging with x-rays involves exposing a part of the body to a small dose of ionizing radiation to produce pictures of the inside of the body. X-rays are the oldest and most frequently used form of medical imaging.
DEXA is most often performed on the lower spine and hips. In children and some adults, the whole body is sometimes scanned. Peripheral devices that use x-ray or ultrasound are sometimes used to screen for low bone mass. In some communities, a CT scan with special software can also be used to diagnose or monitor low bone mass (QCT). This is accurate but less commonly used than DEXA scanning.

What are some common uses of the procedure?

DEXA is most often used to diagnose osteoporosis, a condition that often affects women after menopause but may also be found in men. Osteoporosis involves a gradual loss of calcium, as well as structural changes, causing the bones to become thinner, more fragile and more likely to break.
DEXA is also effective in tracking the effects of treatment for osteoporosis and other conditions that cause bone loss.
The DEXA test can also assess an individual's risk for developing fractures. The risk of fracture is affected by age, body weight, history of prior fracture, family history of osteoporotic fractures and life style issues such as cigarette smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. These factors are taken into consideration when deciding if a patient needs therapy.

Bone density testing is strongly recommended if you:

  • are a post-menopausal woman and not taking estrogen.
  • have a personal or maternal history of hip fracture or smoking.
  • are a post-menopausal woman who is tall (over 5 feet 7 inches) or thin (less than 125 pounds).
  • are a man with clinical conditions associated with bone loss.
  • use medications that are known to cause bone loss, including corticosteroids such as Prednisone, various anti-seizure medications such as Dilantin and certain barbiturates, or high-dose thyroid replacement drugs.
  • have type 1 (formerly called juvenile or insulin-dependent) diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease or a family history of osteoporosis.
  • have high bone turnover, which shows up in the form of excessive collagen in urine samples.
  • have a thyroid condition, such as hyperthyroidism.
  • have a parathyroid condition, such as hyperparathyroidism.
  • have experienced a fracture after only mild trauma.
  • have had x-ray evidence of vertebral fracture or other signs of osteoporosis.

The Lateral Vertebral Assessment (LVA), a low-dose x-ray examination of the spine to screen for vertebral fractures that is performed on the DEXA machine, may be recommended for older patients, especially if:

  • they have lost more than an inch of height.
  • have unexplained back pain.
  • if a DEXA scan gives borderline readings.

How should I prepare?

On the day of the exam you may eat normally. You should not take calcium supplements for at least 24 hours before your exam.
You should wear loose, comfortable clothing, avoiding garments that have zippers, belts or buttons made of metal. Objects such as keys or wallets that would be in the area being scanned should be removed.
You may be asked to remove some or all of your clothes and to wear a gown during the exam. You may also be asked to remove jewelry, dentures, eye glasses and any metal objects or clothing that might interfere with the x-ray images.
Inform your physician if you recently had a barium examination or have been injected with a contrast material for a computed tomography (CT) scan or radioisotope scan. You may have to wait 10 to 14 days before undergoing a DEXA test.
Women should always inform their physician and x-ray technologist if there is any possibility that they are pregnant. Many imaging tests are not performed during pregnancy so as not to expose the fetus to radiation. If an x-ray is necessary, precautions will be taken to minimize radiation exposure to the baby. See the Safety page (www.RadiologyInfo.org/en/safety/) for more information about pregnancy and x-rays.
For more information go to Radiologyinfo.org