What is a Bone Density Scan and Do You Need One?

As you get older, your bones lose mass, calcium and minerals. This makes your bones weaker, which can cause them to break. To determine just how weak your bones are, a doctor might order a bone density scan.

What is a Bone Density Scan?

Also called a bone mineral density (BMD) scan, these diagnostic tests are similar to X-rays but don’t expose your body to as much radiation. Conducted either on your hips or spine, the scans are non-invasive and painless, and take only minutes to complete.

Bone density scans sometimes are offered at community health fairs or drugstores. They are conducted with a smaller device that is used on your finger, heel or wrist.

What do the Scans Show?

After the scan, a doctor will compare your bone density scores to those of other adults. One score will compare you with someone of the same age, gender and ethnicity. The second score compares your scan to someone who’s younger than you.

A negative score means your bones are less dense than they should be. Therefore, the lower the number, the more bone loss you’ve experienced. Additionally, if your score is lower than -2.5, you probably have osteoporosis, a condition wherein your bones are so weak and brittle, they can break from coughing or bending over.

Should You Get a Bone Density Scan?

Young women have plenty of the hormone called estrogen that keeps bones from losing mass. After menopause, however, the estrogen level in your body declines, which can cause your bone density to decrease as well. In fact, in the 10 years following menopause, you can lose 25 percent of your bone density.

That’s why doctors often recommend women older than 65 have bone density scans. Additionally, younger women might have a scan if they:

  •  Use tobacco
  • Have had bone fracture as an adult
  • Drink a lot of alcohol or caffeine
  • Are very slim or have a small small frame
  • Started menopause early or menstrual periods later than average
  • Maintain a sedentary lifestyle
  • Have a thyroid condition
  • Have a vitamin D deficiency
  • Low estrogen levels

If you wish to learn more about bone loss and bone density scans, talk with your family doctor, orthopedic surgeon or OB-GYN.

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