Not too long ago, a woman didn’t find out she had osteoporosis, the bone-thinning disease, until a minor fall resulted in a major fracture. And even then, there wasn’t much she could do about it. Today, however, technology using low-dose X-rays gives a woman precise information about bone density. She can find out if her bones are sturdy, whether she has osteoporosis or whether the disease may be in her future.
The most accurate bone-density screening is called dual energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DEXA. The test, which is painless, requires no undressing and takes about 10 to 30 minutes. It checks bone density at the hip, spine and forearm—sites that are especially vulnerable to bad breaks.
Before the development of osteoporosis drugs, there wasn’t much point in getting a bone-density test. One of the few strategies doctors could recommend for bone strength was doing weight-bearing exercises and getting enough calcium. But today’s new treatment options make bone-density tests an important tracking and diagnostic tool.
For example, the results of the test could influence a postmenopausal woman’s decision about treatment. If the test reveals osteoporosis, she can opt for a drug designed to keep her bones strong. Premenopausal women with risk factors for osteoporosis (see “Are you at risk for osteoporosis?") might consider getting tested to assess their bone health when they can still help prevent bone loss through exercise and diet. And women already diagnosed with osteoporosis can get regular scans to find out how their bones are changing.
These days, bone-density testing may be as close as your local mall. But the machines used in retail stores don’t always reveal weakened bones in the hips and spine, the most vulnerable areas.
If you’re thinking about getting tested, talk to your healthcare provider first to evaluate your risk and further discuss testing and treatments, if necessary.