Bone densitometry

Bone densitometry is an enhanced form of x-ray technology used to measure bone loss by checking bone mineral density. Bone densitometry is a simple, quick and noninvasive procedure. No anesthesia is required. The amount of radiation used is extremely small—less than one-tenth the dose of a standard chest x-ray, and less than a day’s exposure to natural radiation.

DXA bone density testing is the most accurate method available for the diagnosis of osteoporosis and is also considered an accurate estimator of fracture risk.

Bone densitometry 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.

Common uses

Bone densitometry is most often used to diagnose osteoporosis, a condition that often affects women after menopause but may also be found in men and rarely in children. Osteoporosis involves a gradual loss of calcium, as well as structural changes that cause the bones to become thinner, more fragile and more likely to break. Bone densitometry can also be used to track the effects of treatment for osteoporosis and other conditions causing bone loss.

Bone densitometry can also assess your risk for developing fractures. This risk can be 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. All these factors are taken into consideration when deciding if a patient might need 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.

Procedure prep

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, removable dental appliances, 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 DXA 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 for more information about pregnancy and x-rays.

Test specifics

This examination is usually done on an outpatient basis.

To measure bone density in the hip and spine, the patient will lie on a padded table. To assess the spine, the patient’s legs are supported on a padded box to flatten the pelvis and lower (lumbar) spine. To assess the hip, the patient’s foot is placed in a brace that rotates the hip inward. In both cases, the detector is slowly passed over the area, generating images on a computer monitor.

The peripheral tests are simpler. The finger, hand, forearm or foot is placed in a small device that obtains a bone density reading within a few minutes.

Bone densitometry is usually completed within 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the equipment used and the parts of the body being examined . You will probably be asked to fill out a questionnaire that will help the doctor determine if you have medical conditions or take certain medications that either increase or decrease your risk of a fracture.