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What to Expect from a DEXA Bone Density Scan

Updated on March 7, 2015
Spinal bone density
Spinal bone density | Source

A DEXA scan is used to measure your bone density. During a recent annual wellness checkup, my doctor recommended a DEXA scan for me to measure my bone density and ensure I was taking the right precautions to prevent Osteoporosis in the future. Learn about DEXA scans below including what it is, who needs one, how to prepare for your visit, what to expect during the appointment, risks, benefits, and more!

What is a DEXA scan?

DEXA stands for dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry and just like the name suggests, it’s a form of x-ray that measures your bone density and bone loss. It’s a great tool for patients who may be showing symptoms of Osteoporosis and for younger patients who want to keep an eye on their density and ensure they take the right precautions to maintain their bone health through the years.

What is Osteoporosis

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Osteoporosis is a disease that results in weak and brittle bones, leaving your skeleton prone to fractures and other complications. While this is a disease most often seen in women later in life, it can affect both women and men at different stages of life due to a variety of factors.

Bone is a living organism which constantly regenerates. When Osteoporosis occurs, new bone growth cannot keep up with bone loss.

Bone loss can also result in Osteopenia. Osteopenia is lower than normal bone density but not quite low enough to qualify as Osteoporosis.

Learn how Osteoporosis develops in the video, below including what normal bone density looks like and how this disease makes bones weaker and more likely to break.

Why it’s important to prevent Osteoporosis

Preventing and properly treating Osteoporosis is important to avoid or minimize the following symptoms:

  • Back pain, caused by a fractured or collapsed vertebra

  • Loss of height

  • Stooped posture and curvature of bones

  • A bone fractures

Who needs a DEXA scan?

Bone density tests are often recommended if you fall into one of the following categories:

Post-menopausal women
Medicine that could cause bone loss
Thyroid condition
People with bone conditions
Type 1 diabetes
Fracture from little to no trauma
Family history of bone or hip fractures
Liver or kidney disease
Back pain or height loss

Preparing for your visit

This procedure is very easy to prepare for and unlike other medical procedures does not require fasting or any supplement or medicine intake beforehand.

Below is a list of things you should do to prepare for your appointment:

  • Avoid taking calcium supplements 24 hours before your appointment

  • Wear loose fitting clothing the day of your appointment

  • Avoid wearing clothing or undergarments with zipper, buttons, metal closures, clasps, or plastic hooks

  • Eat and drink normally the day of your appointment

What happens during your appointment?

DEXA scan machine
DEXA scan machine | Source

When you arrive, you will most likely be asked to complete a registration form with your basic information as well as questions about your calcium intake, cancer history, family medical history, and fracture history.

The technician will call you back into the scanning room to prepare for your scan, but never fear! This is probably one of the easiest medical procedures you will ever experience!

Benefits of the DEXA scan procedures:

  • It’s fast.

  • It’s painless.

  • No physical exam required.

  • Very low exposure to radiation.

DXA is most often performed on the lower spine and hips. If, as in my case, you have any hardware (rods, pins, etc.) in your hips or back, scan of your forearm or wrist may be taken as an alternative, though the spine/hip scan is thought to be the best measure of your density and bone loss.

Things to advise your medical professional before they perform the scan:

  • Let them know if you are or could be pregnant

  • Advise them of any past surgeries, fractures, or hardware you may have especially in your hips, legs, or back

  • Advise them if you have ever had this type of scan before

During the scan, the technician will position you on the table and then start the scanning machine. The machine has a small arm that reaches up and over the table, then slowly scans the area forward and back, and that’s it! You should be in and out in the matter of minutes.

Are there any risks?

Spinal x-ray scan
Spinal x-ray scan | Source

As with any x-ray procedure, there is the risk of exposure to radiation. In some cases, prolonged exposure to radiation may result in cancer, however the DEXA procedure uses extremely low doses of radiation in comparison to other x-ray procedures. In fact, in most cases, the technician remains in the room during the DEXA scan whereas in other x-ray procedures, the technician retreats behind a wall to eliminate their radiation exposure.

For the majority of patients, getting an accurate measure of their bone density and potential loss outweighs any radiation risks.

Following up

After your scan, your results will be evaluated by a Radiologist and likely sent over to your primary care physician or medical professional who recommended the procedure. They will evaluate the results and recommend post-procedure regime to keep your bones in optimum strength, based on the results.

Results are often reported as “T-scores” and “Z-scores.” A T-score is what your bone density is like compared to a healthy 30 year old person while a Z-score compares your bone density to someone of the same age and sex.

Typically, a T-score of -2.5 or lower indicates Osteoporosis whereas if your score falls between -1.0 and -2.5, it typically indicates Osteopenia which means you have below normal density.

Weight bearing exercise for healthy bones
Weight bearing exercise for healthy bones | Source

If the results of your scan do show you fall into the range of Osteopenia or Osteoporosis, don’t panic! Below are some things you can do to keep your bones healthy:

  • Perform daily weight bearing exercises such as lifting small weights, walking, swimming, and staying generally active. If you do not use your bones and muscles, we lose strength rapidly. Weight bearing activity helps stimulate new bone growth and keep you strong.

  • Eat at least 2 servings of calcium per day. Try to incorporate even more if you are at risk for bone loss. Great sources of dairy include dark leafy greens like kale, chards, or spinach and dairy like cottage cheese, milk, and yogurt.

  • Incorporate a calcium supplement with vitamin D into your daily routine to support your calcium rich diet.

  • Avoid excessive caffeine, sugar, and alcohol intake and smoking.

Overall, if you have experienced any unexplained fractures, are concerned you are not getting enough calcium intake, or have any risks for future bone diseases like Osteopenia or Osteoporosis, why not ask your doctor if the DEXA scan is right for you? Most providers recommend the procedure every couple of years unless you have an increased risk or concern and it is well worth your short time investment to secure a healthy future for your bones.

Have you ever had a DEXA scan? What was your experience like? Share in the comments!

Do you live with Osteoporosis or other bone issues? Tell us what you do to keep your bones healthy in the comments!


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    • WheelerWife profile image

      WheelerWife 2 years ago from Minnesota

      Ghaelach - thank you for sharing your personal story. Sorry to hear the struggles you've had to go through. All we can do is take life one day at a time! have a great weekend, too!

    • profile image

      Ghaelach 2 years ago

      Afternoon WheelerWife.

      I found your hub very interesting. This is very good reading for anyone with Osteoporosis and a file full of learning information for those that don't have it.

      While I don't have Osteoporosis, I contracted another form of this Osteo, Chronic Osteomyelitis (OM) by way of MRSA after a simple OP on my ankle. I was in hospital 10 (ten) weeks with my ankle being opened up 5 times to try to scrape the bacteria (S. aureus) out of the ankle joint. I now have Chronic Osteomyelitis in my bone marrow which after 12 years has built little nests all over my body. I take Tilidin 100 pain killers to help with the pain, but I'll be changing them soon as they aren't a lot of help. I've just got to hope that I don't have any sort of an accident and break a bone, allowing the blood to come in contact with my bone marrow. If that happens, then it's good-bye cruel world through blood poisoning.

      In the end my problem will take me, but in the meantime I've learned to push it to the back of my mind and get on with my life, however long that will be.

      Take care and have a great weekend.

      Jimmy .....................................aka Ghaelach

    • WheelerWife profile image

      WheelerWife 3 years ago from Minnesota

      Jackie Lynnley - thanks for the compliment! Yes, it's really a very easy, simple test so it's an easy one to check off the list.

      RoadMonkey - wow, interesting they found a thyroid problem. Amazing what technology can do.

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      My sister in law had to go for this because of a fall and fracture and they found a thyroid problem.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Great hub; I have been meaning to get this and really should just do it! ^+

    • WheelerWife profile image

      WheelerWife 3 years ago from Minnesota

      girlpower - thanks so much for checking out my hub! glad you found it informative!

    • girlpower profile image

      girlpower 3 years ago from eugene oregon

      Very good hub,lots of good information. I learned that swimming is considered weight bearing,i had thought not.