Bone Density Scan

  • Medical Author:
    Catherine Burt Driver, MD

    Catherine Burt Driver, MD, is board certified in internal medicine and rheumatology by the American Board of Internal Medicine. Dr. Driver is a member of the American College of Rheumatology. She currently is in active practice in the field of rheumatology in Mission Viejo, Calif., where she is a partner in Mission Internal Medical Group.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

View the Osteoporosis Slideshow Pictures

Bone density scan facts

  • About 40% of postmenopausal women in the U.S. have osteopenia (low bone density). An additional 7% have osteoporosis (substantially low bone density).
  • One in three women and one of five men over the age of 50 will experience a bone fracture related to osteoporosis.
  • About 33% of people who suffer a hip fracture are totally dependent or in a nursing home in the year following the fracture, stressing the importance of early detection and appropriate therapy.
  • Bone mineral density (BMD) estimates the true mass of bone.
  • BMD analysis is recommended for women between ages 50 and 65 with risk factors for osteoporosis and for all women over the age of 65. In addition, men and women taking certain medications or having certain diseases should discuss testing with their doctor.
  • By measuring BMD, it is possible to predict fracture risk in the same manner that measuring blood pressure can help predict the risk of stroke.
  • DXA (or DEXA) is quick, painless, and the preferred method to measure BMD.
  • Osteoporosis has many available prescription and nonprescription treatment options once the diagnosis is made.

What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a medical condition that is characterized by bones that are less dense than, and thus not as strong as, normal bone. Osteoporosis increases the risk of breaking a bone (fracture) with even minor trauma, such as a fall from standing height, or even from a cough or sneeze. Unfortunately, people often do not realize they have osteoporosis until either they have a fracture or have a screening test ordered by their doctor to check for osteoporosis. Osteoporosis and low bone mass affect an estimated 44 million Americans. Of those, 10 million have osteoporosis, and the remaining 34 million have a lower than normal bone mass (medically termed osteopenia) and are at higher risk of developing osteoporosis. Women are four times more likely to develop osteoporosis than men. Other health risk factors include older age, family history of osteoporosis, small and thin stature, inactive lifestyle, smoking, alcohol, and use of certain medications, including steroids.

Quick GuideWhat Is Osteoporosis? Treatment, Symptoms, Medication

What Is Osteoporosis? Treatment, Symptoms, Medication
A bone density scan is recommended for menopausal women over 65 and those who have risk factors of osteoporosis.

Who Should Get a Bone Density Scan?

Bone density testing is used to assess the strength of the bones and the probability of fracture in persons at risk for osteoporosis. The test, referred to as bone densitometry or bone mineral density scan (BMD), is a simple, noninvasive procedure that takes just minutes.

How does osteoporosis occur?

In order to understand the role of bone mineral density scanning, it is important to know about how osteoporosis occurs. Bone is a living tissue and is constantly being remodeled. This is the natural, healthy state of continuous uptake of old bone (resorption) followed by the deposit of new bone. This turnover is important in keeping bones healthy and in repairing any minor damage that may occur with wear and tear. The cells that lay new bone down are called osteoblasts, and the cells responsible for resorption of old bone are called osteoclasts. Osteoporosis occurs as a result of a mismatch between osteoclast and osteoblast activity. This mismatch can be caused by many different disease states or hormonal changes. It is also commonly a result of aging, change in normal hormones as occurs after menopause, and with diets low in calcium and vitamin D. In osteoporosis, osteoclasts outperform osteoblasts so that more bone is taken up than is laid down. The result is a thinning of the bone with an accompanying loss in bone strength and a greater risk of fracture. A thinning bone results in a lower bone density or bone mass.

There are two major types of bone. Cancellous bone (also known as trabecular bone) is the inner, softer portion of the bone, and cortical bone is the outer, harder layer of bone. Cancellous bone undergoes turnover at a faster rate than cortical bone. As a result, if osteoclast and osteoblast activity become mismatched, cancellous bone is affected more rapidly than cortical bone. Certain areas in the body have a higher ratio of cancellous bone to cortical bone such as the spine (vertebrae), the wrist (distal radius), and the hips (femoral neck).

Most of a person's bone mass is achieved by early adulthood. After that time, the bone mass gradually declines throughout the rest of a person's life. There is a normal rate of decline in bone mass with age in both men and women. For women, in addition to age, the menopause transition itself causes an extra degree of bone loss. This bone loss is greatest in the first three to six years after menopause. Women can lose up to 20% of the total bone mass during this time. Since women generally have a lower bone mass to begin with in comparison with men, the ultimate result is a higher risk of fracture in postmenopausal women as compared to men of the same age. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that men may also be at risk for osteoporosis, especially if they have certain illnesses, a low testosterone level, are smokers, take certain medications, or are sedentary. The best method to prevent osteoporosis is to achieve as high a bone mass by early adulthood with a proper diet and regular exercise. Unfortunately, osteoporosis is not often considered during this time in a person's life.

What is bone mineral density (BMD)?

The absolute amount of bone as measured by bone mineral density (BMD) testing generally correlates with bone strength and its ability to bear weight. The BMD is measured with a dual energy low-dose X-ray absorptiometry test (referred to as a DXA scan). By measuring BMD, it is possible to predict fracture risk in the same manner that measuring blood pressure can help predict the risk of stroke.

It is important to remember that BMD testing cannot predict the certainty of developing a fracture. It can only predict risk. It is also important to note that a bone density scan, or test, should not be confused with a bone scan, which is a nuclear medicine test in which a radioactive tracer is injected that is used to detect tumors, cancer, fractures, and infections in the bone.

The World Health Organization has developed definitions for low bone mass (osteopenia) and osteoporosis. These definitions are based on a T-score. The T-score is a measure of how dense a patient's bone is compared to a normal, healthy 30-year-old adult.

Normal: A bone BMD is considered normal if the T-score is within 1 standard deviation of the normal young adult value. Thus a T-score between 0 and -1 is considered a normal result. A T-score below -1 is considered an abnormal result.

Low bone mass (medically termed osteopenia): A BMD defines osteopenia as a T-score between -1 and -2.5. This signifies an increased fracture risk but does not meet the criteria for osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis: A BMD more than 2.5 standard deviations from the normal (T score less than or equal to -2.5) defines osteoporosis.

Based on the above medical criteria, it is estimated that 40% of all postmenopausal Caucasian women have osteopenia and that an additional 7% have osteoporosis.

Quick GuideWhat Is Osteoporosis? Treatment, Symptoms, Medication

What Is Osteoporosis? Treatment, Symptoms, Medication

Who invented the bone density scan?

The bone density scan was invented by the late John R. Cameron (1922-2005), professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He earned a PhD in physics. He invented bone densitometry in the late 1960s. Bone densitometry, which uses precise, very small radiation measurements to determine the mineral content of bone, was one of his many important contributions to medical physics.

Who performs bone density scans?

Bone density scans, or DXA scans, are performed by a trained technician using a DXA machine. The results are then interpreted by a physician. Many different specialist interpret bone density scans, including radiologists, endocrinologists, rheumatologists, gynecologists, and internists.

Where is a bone density test done?

Bone density tests can be done in a physician's office or in a radiology center in or out of the hospital where other tests such as mammograms, CT scans, and X-rays are performed.

What information is on a DXA report?

There is some variation in DXA reports depending on the facility performing the test. All reports should include the following:

  • The date of the test, location, and medical equipment used for the test (manufacturer and model of the densitometer)
  • The reason the test was performed
  • The overall diagnosis (normal bone density, osteopenia, or osteoporosis) based on the results of the scan
  • It should mention the results of the test at each site tested. The hip and lumbar spine are always tested. Many medical facilities also measure bone density at the forearm. The bone density is usually reported with three different numbers. First, the actual bone density is reported. This is measured in grams per centimeter squared (g/cm2). Because the exact bone density varies based on the manufacturer and model of the densitometer, the bone density is also reported as a T-score and a Z-score. The T-score is a measure of how dense a patient's bone is compared to a normal, healthy 30-year-old adult. The Z-score is a measure of how dense a patient's bone is compared to the average person of the same age and gender.
  • Comparison of the bone density to any prior tests performed at the same medical facility
  • Many reports include a calculation estimate of the patient's risk of bone fracture based on the results of the bone density scan. This is reported as the risk over the following 10 years of breaking a bone.
  • Some reports also include a vertebral fracture assessment, which uses the DXA to see if there are any bones in the spine that have already fractured.
  • A notation suggesting how long before a follow-up test is needed

Why is bone mineral density measurement important?

Determining a person's BMD helps a health care professional decide if a person is at increased risk for osteoporosis-related fracture. The purpose of BMD testing is to help predict the risk of future fracture so that the treatment program can be optimized. The information from a BMD is used to aid a decision as to whether nonprescription and/or prescription medicine therapy is needed to help reduce the risk of fracture. Additionally, if a patient has a fracture or is planning orthopedic surgery, a diagnosis of osteoporosis might affect the surgical plan. A fracture that could potentially heal in a cast with normal bone mass might require either a longer period of casting or even surgery if the patient has osteoporosis. Sometimes spinal surgeons treat patients with low bone density with bone building medication prior to surgery in order to improve the surgical outcome of bone that is operated on.

What is the relationship between BMD and fracture risk?

In patients with low bone mass at the hip or the spine (the two areas traditionally measured with DXA [formerly referred to as DEXA] scanning), there is a two- to threefold increase in the incidence of any osteoporotic fracture. In other words, low bone density at the measured areas of the spine and hip can even predict future osteoporotic fractures at other parts of the body besides the spine and hip. In subjects with a BMD in the osteoporosis range, there is approximately a five times increase in the occurrence of osteoporotic fractures.

Who should have BMD testing?

BMD testing is recommended for all women over the age of 65. Additionally, postmenopausal women under 65 years who have risk factors for osteoporosis other than menopause (these include a previous history of fractures, low body weight, cigarette smoking, and a family history of fractures) should be tested. Finally, men or women with strong risk factors as listed below should discuss the benefit of DXA scanning with their health care professional to see if testing is indicated.

The following are potential risk factors for osteoporosis that might suggest the need for DXA scanning:

Quick GuideWhat Is Osteoporosis? Treatment, Symptoms, Medication

What Is Osteoporosis? Treatment, Symptoms, Medication

How is BMD measured?

Dual energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DXA, is the most common method to measure a patient's BMD. DXA, or densitometry, is relatively easy to perform and the amount of radiation exposure is low. A DXA scanner is a machine that produces two X-ray beams, each with different energy levels. One beam is high energy while the other is low energy. The amount of X-rays that pass through the bone is measured for each beam. This will vary depending on the thickness of the bone. Based on the difference between the two X-ray beams, the bone density can be measured. The radiation exposure from a DXA scan is actually much less than that from a traditional chest X-ray.

At present, DXA scanning gives information on the BMD two main areas, the hip and spine. Another bone that is often evaluated is the bone of the forearm. Although osteoporosis involves the whole body, measurements of BMD at one site can be predictive of fractures at other sites. Scanning generally takes 10 to 20 minutes to complete and is painless. The patient needs to be able to lie still on the table during the testing. There is no IV or other injection needed for this test. In preparation for a DXA, on the day of the test, you may eat a normal meal, but you should not take any calcium supplements for 24 hours prior to the test.

Certain conditions can alter the results of the DXA scan, making result less reliable. These include a lumbar spinal deformity (scoliosis), extensive degenerative arthritis, a large amount of calcium in the blood vessels (atherosclerosis), or multiple fractures. These conditions can falsely elevate the measured BMD with the DXA scan.

What are other methods of measuring BMD?

There are small DXA scanners called peripheral DXA machines. These machines often measure BMD at the heel (calcaneus), shin bone (distal tibia), or kneecap (patella). Regular DXA machines have a standard reference (called NHANES III) that can be used for all machines, no matter the manufacturer. However, peripheral DXA machines do not yet have a uniform reference standard for the normal peak young adult bone mass that can apply to all machines and all manufacturers. This is necessary for peripheral DXA to be ready for more widespread use. Efforts are in progress to make the peripheral DXA technique more standardized. At present, it is best used as a screening test to consider whether or not a patient would benefit from further bone density testing.

Quantitative computed tomography (QCT) can be used to assess BMD. A standard CT scanner is used in this method. However, the amount of radiation exposure is higher than with DXA and the cost is greater. For these reasons, QCT is not in general clinical use.

Ultrasound is a relatively new diagnostic tool to measure BMD. There is no radiation source with this procedure. An ultrasound beam is directed at the area being analyzed. The scattering and absorption of the waves allow for an assessment of bone density. The results are not as precise as with the other methods mentioned. This technique is relatively new, and there is considerable research being conducted in this area. Since ultrasounds can easily be performed in a physician's office, this method may become valuable for screening larger populations if its accuracy becomes more refined. If the BMD is low on the ultrasound test, you might be asked to have a DXA scan to confirm the results.

New techniques that are being developed to measure both the BMD and even the quality of the bone are micro CT and MR, which use technologies related to CT and MRI scans. These are not yet available for clinical use.

How often should DXA scans be repeated to monitor treatment?

The frequency of monitoring osteoporosis treatment using DXA scans is highly controversial. Some health care professionals recommend DXA scanning at one- to two-year intervals to monitor changes in bone density during treatment. But recent scientific evidence questions the usefulness of such interval monitoring. Reasons why repeating bone density scans is extremely tricky include:

  1. Bone density changes so slowly that the changes may be smaller than the measurement error of the machine. In other words, repeat DXA scans cannot distinguish between a "real" increase in bone density or a mere variation in measurement from the machine itself. Typically, BMD changes 1% per year, which is less than the error of a DXA machine (usually in the range of 3%). Changes of less than 2%-4% in the vertebrae and 3%-6% at the hip from test to test can be due to the precision error of the method.
  2. Whereas the real purpose of prescription osteoporosis treatment is to decrease future bone fractures, there is no good correlation between increases in bone density as measured by DXA with decreases in fracture risks with treatment. There are multiple examples of this in recent clinical studies. For example, the improvement in BMD only accounted for 4% of the reduction in spine fracture risk with raloxifene (Evista), 16% of the reduction in spine fracture risk with alendronate (Fosamax), and 18% of the reduction in spine fracture risk with risedronate (Actonel, Atelvia). Thus, improvement in BMD does not indicate the amount of the antifracture benefit of osteoporosis medication. Prescription medication may decrease a person's risk of fracture even when there is no apparent increase in BMD. Physicians and nonphysicians alike are often surprised to learn this information!
  3. Even if the DXA scan shows continued deterioration in bone density during treatment, no research data exists demonstrating that changing a medication, combining medications, or increasing medication doses will be safe and helpful in decreasing the future risk of fractures compared to just continuing the same medication.
  4. Even if a person's bone density deteriorates during treatment, it is quite likely that the person would have lost even more bone density without treatment.
  5. Recent research has shown that women who lose bone density after the first year of menopausal hormone therapy will gain bone density in the next two years, whereas women who gain in the first year will tend to lose density in the next two years of therapy. Therefore, bone density during treatment naturally fluctuates and may not be indicative of the fracture protection of the medication.

What is the cost of DXA?

The cost for DXA scanning varies depending on insurance policies and coverage. In general, a patient without health care coverage paying cash can expect to pay approximately $200-$300 U.S. for the procedure.

What about the accuracy of BMD testing in the doctor's office using smaller equipment?

There are several devices that are smaller than the standard DXA scanners that are being used in health care professional's offices to screen for low bone density. Very little scientific data is available about these smaller units. Most of the information comes directly from the equipment manufacturers themselves. Many of these models test peripheral bones in the feet or hands. Other units use ultrasonography. These techniques can be less accurate than BMD testing performed with state of the art equipment. Additionally, office-testing equipment can range dramatically in price and quality.

In general, these devices may be reasonable to measure overall fracture risk but are not useful in monitoring therapy. Their use might be limited to screening and results would require confirmation using DXA. In addition, expertise in using the equipment and interpreting the data can vary. At present, it is difficult to comment on these other methods of BMD testing. Interpretation of the results of these tests may be more difficult and not as reliable as the standard DXA scan. Some doctors use these as screening tools and recommend more formal DXA testing if they are abnormal.

Summary

Osteoporosis is a disease that results in a significant risk of fracture. The consequences of fracture can include hospitalization, immobility, a decrease in the quality of life, and even death.

From a larger perspective, it is a costly disease in terms of the health-care system and time lost from work. Early detection and therapy is the mainstay for trying to prevent these complications. BMD testing results correlate well with the risk of fracture, and the testing is easily performed in a time-efficient manner without any discomfort. Although many methods of BMD testing exist, the best currently is DXA scanning. It is imperative that testing ultimately be done using state-of-the-art equipment with capable highly trained personnel and a doctor well versed in interpreting the results.

REFERENCES:

International Osteoporosis Foundation. "Facts and Statistics." <https://www.iofbonehealth.org/>.

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. "Screening for osteoporosis: recommendation statement." Am Fam Physician 83.10 May 15, 2011: 1197-1200.

Last Editorial Review: 2/22/2017

Subscribe to MedicineNet's Women's Health Newsletter

By clicking Submit, I agree to the MedicineNet's Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of MedicineNet's subscriptions at any time.

Reviewed on 2/22/2017
References
REFERENCES:

International Osteoporosis Foundation. "Facts and Statistics." <https://www.iofbonehealth.org/>.

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. "Screening for osteoporosis: recommendation statement." Am Fam Physician 83.10 May 15, 2011: 1197-1200.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors