What to Expect from a DEXA Bone Density Scan
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
Are you concerned with preventing bone loss?
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:
Medicine that could cause bone loss
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?
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:
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?
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.
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.
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!