What Is Involved in a Bone Scan for Osteoporosis?

A. Pasbjerg

Having a bone scan for osteoporosis is fairly simple, and it can be extremely helpful for determining a person’s risk of fractures and need for treatment. First, a doctor needs to determine if a patient should have a bone scan, a decision typically based on the person having known risk factors for osteoporosis. Once the test is ordered, the patient typically goes to a hospital or medical center, where a machine uses X-rays to measure his or her bone density and a score is provided which can then be used to determine if any action is needed. Bone scans may only need to be performed once, or they may be needed every few years, depending on the patient.

Osteoporosis is a condition that results in weakened and fragile bones.
Osteoporosis is a condition that results in weakened and fragile bones.

Before a bone scan for osteoporosis is done, it is usually first necessary to determine if it is needed. Certain groups of people have a higher than normal risk for developing osteoporosis, including older women, those who have been taking steroids long term, and people with conditions that block nutrient absorption. Other risk factors include smoking, heavy alcohol use, and a sedentary lifestyle. A doctor will typically review the patient’s history and present situation to see if the test is needed, particularly if he or she is in a risk group and presents with a fracture.

Those with osteoporosis have weaker, more brittle bones.
Those with osteoporosis have weaker, more brittle bones.

Patients getting a bone scan for osteoporosis will usually have to go to the radiology department at a medical center or hospital for the procedure. There is nothing the patient needs to do to prepare for the test, though it is advised to dress comfortably, as one will usually have to lie down during the scan. Also, clothing should be free of metal such as zippers.

The patient will have to lie still for several minutes on a large machine while the test, called a dual energy X-ray absorptiometry scan, or DXA scan, is performed. It typically scans parts of the body prone to fractures, like the hip or spine. The scanner does not touch the patient, though it does emit minimal amounts of radiation. Once completed, it will generate a score that shows how far above or below normal the person’s bone density is.

For many people, a bone scan for osteoporosis is only needed one time. A doctor may order a second test after two or three years if there is a chance the patient’s situation may have changed. Ongoing tests may also be needed for patients taking steroids over a long period.

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