What Does a Bone Density Test Show?

Maybe you were running late or maybe it was that patch of ice, but when you slipped and fell on the driveway, you knew as soon as you heard the crack that something bad had happened. Less than a minute later, the throbbing, dull ache of a broken bone started to develop.

Now, your doctor’s recommending a bone density scan and you’re not sure why. At Barrington Orthopedic Specialists, we understand your concern and we’re here to help educate you about the procedure and why your doctor might have recommended it.

Why your doctor recommends a bone density test

We recommend a bone density test when a patient is at risk for weak bones. This includes postmenopausal women and men over 50 who’ve recently broken a bone, women over 65, men over 70, and anyone who displays risk factors for low bone density.

A bone density test is the only screening tool that can diagnose osteoporosis before you suffer a broken bone. It estimates your current bone density and your risk of fracturing or breaking a bone.

If you already know you have weak bones and are trying to strengthen them, a bone density test can also monitor the effects of your treatment.

Bone density tests allows for early detection

Before bone density tests, the first sign of osteoporosis, a bone-weakening condition, was a broken bone or, even worse, a series of broken bones. But by the time your bones are breaking, they’re already weak and fragile.

Your bones are living tissues, and like other tissues in the body, their cells are constantly dying and being replaced. When you have osteoporosis, your body doesn’t create new bone as fast as it loses the old. This leaves your bones vulnerable and makes fractures more likely.

With modern bone density tests, we can measure your bone mass, and if it’s getting low — a condition called osteopenia — we can put interventions in place to slow, halt, or in some cases even reverse bone loss before osteoporosis develops.

What to expect during a bone density test

Bone density tests are fast, easy, and painless. At Barrington Orthopedic Specialists, we use a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) machine for the noninvasive procedure.

We place the device over your hip, lower back, or forearm. These bones have the highest risk of breaks associated with osteoporosis and, if you have low bone density, are the most likely to be affected. If you have more than one bone density test, it should be done in the same place to get the best monitoring of bone loss progression.

The machine takes X-rays of your bones, creating pictures that detail mineral and calcium loss within the bone structure. The procedure typically takes 10-20 minutes and doesn’t require you to do anything other than sit still.

What a bone density test shows

A bone density test shows us if your bones are weak or weakening. It measures the amount of calcium and other minerals in your bones and provides a T-score. Your T-score compares your bone density to that of a healthy 30-year-old, which is about the age when your bones are strongest.

T-scores are given in a range, and we use the lower number for diagnostic purposes as follows:

  • T-score -1.0 or higher: Normal bone density
  • T-score between -1.0 and -2.5: Low bone density
  • T-score -2.5 or lower: Osteoporosis

How to improve bone density

If you need to improve your bone density, make sure you get plenty of calcium and vitamin D. While calcium is essential in strong bones, your body can’t absorb it without enough vitamin D. If you already eat a healthy diet and get plenty of sunshine, we often recommend starting supplements. Vitamin K, potassium, and protein are also important for keeping bones strong.

Exercise also strengthens your bones. Because exercise causes your bones to bear extra weight, they build more mass and become denser and stronger. Strive for at least 30 minutes 4-5 days a week, combining strength training, cardio, and resistance training.

If you already have osteoporosis, we may prescribe osteoporosis medications to reduce bone loss.