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Bone Density Test Purpose and Procedure for High Risk People


A bone density test is one of the common diagnostic procedures that seniors may undergo. Elderly women in particular and those with osteoporosis may have bone density tests more frequently. But even in an older person without any bone-related problems, a bone density test is still advisable as a routine screening measure since osteoporosis is a common occurrence in the senior years. A bone density test is not the same as a bone scan although the purpose of both investigations may overlap to some degree.

What is a bone density test?

A bone density test is performed to see if a person is suffering from osteoporosis, a disease where the bones become fragile and susceptible to easy fracture following minimal or no trauma. In the past osteoporosis was detected only after a fracture occurred. However these days a bone density test allows for osteoporosis to be more easily diagnosed even before a fracture occurs. This test uses the X-ray to determine the amount of calcium and other bone-forming minerals are concentrated within a segment of bone. Usually the test is performs on the bones of the spine, hip and forearm.

Reasons for Bone Density Test

A bone density test is done to detect the status of mineralization of bone, to determine the risk of fractures in the future, and to confirm a diagnosis of osteoporosis if the person has already suffered from fracture. The test may also be utilized for the purpose of monitoring the treatment outcome of osteoporosis. The mineral content of bone indirectly indicates bone strength. The chances of a fracture declines. A bone density test is different from a bone scan. The latter involves the injection of a dye and different bony abnormalities like fractures and tumors are detected.

Osteoporosis is more common in women, particularly postmenopausal females and gradually worsens with age. Elderly men with low testosterone levels may also experience fragile bones similar to postmenopausal women, and a bone density is just as important in males. The test is also advisable in the following cases:

  • Any person, who has recently experienced height loss of about 4cm or more which may suggest underlying compression fracture of the bones of the vertebral column.
  • History of fracture of bone following minimal or no trauma like after forceful coughing or sneezing.
  • Long term intake of certain drugs like corticosteroids which interfere with bone remodeling procedure leading to osteoporosis
  • Organ or bone marrow transplantation patients who are required to take a number of anti-rejection drugs which are capable of interrupting the bone rebuilding process


Bone density tests are usually done on bones that are more likely to be fractured in osteoporosis. This includes the bones of the lower back (vertebral bones), the neck of the femur (thigh bone) close to the hip joint and bones forming the forearm. A bone density test done at the hospital  can target these areas. It usually takes about 10 minutes for completion of the test. The amount of radiation exposure is less than the amount emitted during chest X-ray.

There are small portable devices available at pharmacies which may be used to measure bone density. Using this machine bone density is measured in heel, finger or at wrist. Bone density measured at these areas is not as accurate as bone density measured at hip or lower back bones. Therefore a follow-up bone density test may be recommended if there are positive results with a peripheral device.


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