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home : columns : ask the doctors February 24, 2020

1/3/2020 8:10:00 AM
Bone density test helpful in diagnosing Osteoporosis

Dear Doctor: I just turned 65, and my doctor wants me to have a bone density test. What is it, and how does it work?

Dear Reader: A bone mineral density test, or BMD, measures the strength of one's bones. It's an important diagnostic tool for osteoporosis, a progressive disease in which bones become brittle and fragile and can easily break.

Although our bones appear hard and static, they are made up of living tissue. The honeycombed inner framework of a bone is composed of collagen, which is a protein. A mineral known as calcium phosphate provides strength and solidity. Together, these two substances create a strong and flexible structure that successfully withstands stress.

Our skeletons have a dynamic life cycle in which old bone is continuously removed, while at the same time new bone is added. In children and teens, the addition part of the cycle outpaces removal, allowing the skeletal bones to grow in both strength and density. This cycle peaks sometime in our late 20s, at which point bone reabsorption gradually begins to overtake bone formation. Certain hormonal changes that occur in women during menopause further accelerate that imbalance. The result is that old bone may be removed too quickly, new bone may be added too slowly, or both. Over time, the honeycomb framework within the bone grows increasingly porous, while the exterior structure becomes thinner.

All of this leads us back to the scan your doctor has recommended. Known as a DXA test -- that's short for dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry -- it's essentially the same procedure and technology used in a standard X-ray. A machine delivers low-dose X-rays, which measure the amount of calcium and other bone minerals present in a segment of bone. The proportion of bone minerals to soft tissue reveals bone density.

The DXA test, which is most often used to measure bone density at the hip and the lumbar spine, is used to diagnose osteoporosis. It can also help assess risk of future fractures, and to detect whether a treatment for osteoporosis is working. The test, which is as quick and painless as an X-ray, is performed on an outpatient basis. It takes from 15 to 30 minutes to complete, depending on the part of the body being scanned. The results of the test, known as a T score, are presented as a comparison between your own bone density and that of a young adult at the peak of bone formation. A second measurement, known as a Z score, compares your bone density to people your own age, size and gender.

The BMD test is usually recommended for women when they turn 65. It may be recommended earlier than that if a woman has rheumatoid arthritis, low body weight or low vitamin D levels; has used a corticosteroid for three or more months; has a family history of osteoporosis; has experienced bone breaks resulting from a minor accident; has lost height; or is a heavy smoker or drinker. Depending on the results of the initial test, a followup test may be needed in one or two years.

Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.

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