How Do DEXA Scans Help Diagnose Osteoporosis?

By Jacqi Kernaghan, PA-C

shutterstock_73663168Among the many joys of menopause is the potential onset of osteoporosis – the loss of bone mass that can make women’s bones more brittle and susceptible to fractures.

“Great,” you say.

For women who have gone through menopause, there are ways to get in front of this so-called “silent disease” even though it rarely displays outward symptoms.

Osteoporosis typically becomes an issue after menopause, because the body produces less estrogen, which helps to maintain bone health. Some women may see their bone mass drop by as much as 20 percent in the first five years of menopause. Many women never even realize what has occurred until, unfortunately, they break a bone. Half of all women over 50 years old will break a bone in the remainder of their life.

“Even better,” you say.

But if you know you have it, you can take steps to prevent the loss of bone mass. And the way to find out if you have it is to have a bone density scan. That might sound like a big deal, but it’s really not.

ckhs-stock-images-151A DEXA scan is the technique used to measure bone density. It’s an X-ray of the bone density with very little X-ray exposure. A DEXA scan uses two X-ray beams, one high-energy and the other low-energy. The amount of X-rays that pass through the bone is measured for each beam; the difference between the two tells the doctor the bone density.

DEXA scans don’t hurt and they take less than 20 minutes. I’ve heard plenty of patients say that the DEXA scan is the easiest test they’ve ever had.

When you’re done, you’ll get a “T-score” – if it’s above -1, then you’re fine. If it’s between -1 and -2.5, your bones are beginning to lose mass and you need to be evaluated to see if you need treatment. If it’s lower than -2.5, you have osteoporosis and should be treated.

All women over the age of 65 should have a DEXA scan, as should men over the age of 70.

Also if you have any of the risk factors, you should have a DEXA scan done earlier than those ages. Those risk factors include being of Caucasian or Asian race, people who are thin, who smoke, who drink alcohol heavily, who have a family history of osteoporosis or fractures (especially hip and vertebral fractures), people who take steroids for long periods of time, people over 50 who have suffered a fracture unrelated to trauma and people with thyroid disease. There are many other risk factors but these are some of the biggest.

Beyond the ease of getting a DEXA scan, another benefit is that you don’t have to do it every year. It’s recommended that you wait at least two years between DEXA scans, because the change in bone density is usually fairly slow and the scan might not accurately reflect small changes.

shutterstock_65765596Discussions regarding osteoporosis management typically begin with a regimen of calcium, Vitamin D and weight-bearing exercise – although these things do not treat osteoporosis or reverse bone loss. People over the age of 50 should get 1200mg of calcium daily, but only 600mg should be as a supplement pill. The rest should be through the diet; diets high in milk, yogurt, cheese and fortified orange juice are easy ways to get enough calcium in your diet. Most people should take vitamin D3 1000 IU daily but some need higher amounts. Weight-bearing exercise is great for bones but also improves balance which will help decrease one’s chances of falling and breaking a bone.

The Osteoporosis Center of Delaware County is a resource for the detection, evaluation and treatment of osteoporosis. We have four offices across Delaware County. Call today to schedule your consultation – 610-394-4755.

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