A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Bone density scans can help reduce fracture risk

Women exercising with handweights

If you’re a woman older than 65 or are younger and have bone loss risk factors, your doctor may talk to you about getting a bone density scan.

How does it work?

A bone density scan uses a small amount of x-ray to count the minerals and calcium in your bones. These amounts indicate the strength and density of your bones. If some imaging procedures cause you anxiety, this one should not.

“The bone density scan is fast and painless,” said Dr. Jeanette Le Noir, Marshfield Clinic Health System family medicine physician. “During the scan, you will lie on an x-ray table. A scanner arm will move about 12 inches over your hips, back and upper body. The machine is open and you will not need to enter a tube, like an MRI machine.”

How are results interpreted?

After a bone density scan is complete, you’re given a number that shows how dense your bones are compared to the average young adult who is at their highest bone thickness. The higher the number, the stronger your bones are and the less likely they are to break.

“If your bone density test is below normal, the report will also indicate your risk of breaking any bone and your risk of breaking a hip in the next 10 years,” Dr. Le Noir said. “This number will help guide a conversation between you and your provider about possible medication to lower your risk of breaking a bone in the future.”

Prevention can be life-saving

People sometimes overlook bone density as a health concern. However, a woman’s risk of hip fracture due to bone loss is equal to her combined risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancers. Furthermore, about a quarter of people older than 50 who fracture a hip will die within a year. Some of the people who die after a hip fracture likely were not aware something may be wrong.

“There are usually no symptoms of early bone loss, so you may not know it unless you get screened,” said Dr. Le Noir. “If treatment is started during early bone loss, breaking a bone may be prevented.”

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