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Practical Prevention--Who Needs Bone Mineral Density Testing?

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Defining Osteoporosis | Promise of Prevention | How Bone Density Testing Works | BMD Testing Recommendations

osteoporosis boneBone mineral density (BMD) testing has become more available in the US, so it's easier than ever to get checked for osteoporosis. Though a BMD test may not be appropriate for everyone, for some, it may provide an important prevention opportunity.

Defining Osteoporosis

Contrary to popular belief, both men and women can develop osteoporosis, but it is far more common in women, especially after menopause. Osteoporosis slowly weakens bones and puts people at risk for fractures. As a result, nearly half of Caucasian women and nearly one quarter of Caucasian men over 50 will have a fracture due to osteoporosis during their remaining lifetime.

The consequences can be devastating. Spinal fractures may lead to stooped posture, loss of height, chronic pain and disability, and compression of the stomach or lungs. Hip fractures are even more dangerous. Each year, osteoporosis causes more than 2 million fractures of the spine, hip and wrist, causing pain, suffering, depression, difficulty functioning, and lower quality of life.

Promise of Prevention

Since osteoporosis is a silent disease, most people don't realize they have it until after they break a bone. However, there is a way to get an early warning about thinning bones that may allow you to take action. Machines that measure your bone density can help predict your future risk of fractures. Tests can detect osteoporosis before fractures, while preventive measures may still help.

How Bone Density Testing Works

Most devices that measure bone mineral density rely on x-rays to take pictures of your bones. The procedure generally takes less than 15 minutes to complete, and exposes you to about one-tenth of the radiation used in a standard chest x-ray. A computer then calculates the test results to determine the bone density.

Several types of machines are available to read bone density. The most-accurate machines, called central machines, measure the density of your hip, spine, total body, or a combination of these sites. Peripheral machines, on the other hand, usually take measurements at only one location, such as your finger, wrist, kneecap, shinbone or heel.

BMD Testing Recommendations

Talk to your doctor about your risks for osteoporosis. Men and women should be evaluated individually to determine the need for BMD testing. People with multiple factors that place them at high risk for osteoporosis may benefit from early testing.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends BMD for:

  • All women aged 65 years and older
  • All men aged 70 years and older
  • Any adult with a fracture after the age 50 years old

Postmenopausal women under the age of 65 years old, perimenopausal women, and men aged 50-69 years with at least one of the following:

Lifestyle risk factors, such as:

  • Smoking
  • Heavy drinking
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Low body weight or calcium intake

Inherited risk factors, such as:

  • Caucasian race
  • Family history of hip fractures, especially with a parent
  • Genetic disorders

Personal history of:

In BMD testing, the lower your results, or T-score, the higher your risk of developing a fracture. If you are unsure about your bone density status, talk to your doctor about osteoporosis screening. You may be able to avoid future fractures by getting tested.


American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists


National Institutes of Health Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center



The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada


Women's Health Matters



2013 Clinician's Guide to Prevention and Treatment of Osteoporosis. National Osteoporosis Foundation website. Available at: http://nof.org/files/nof/public/content/file/950/upload/523.pdf. Accessed October 30, 2013.

Bone mass measurement: What the numbers mean. NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center websie. Available at: http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Bone/Bone_Health/bone_mass_measure.asp. Updated January 2012. Accessed October 30, 2013.

Bone mineral density testing: who, when, how. Patient Care. 2001 Jan 15:62-82.

Having a bone density test. National Osteoporosis Foundation website. Available at: http://nof.org/articles/743. Accessed October 30, 2013.

Osteoporosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us. Updated October 24, 2013. Accessed October 30, 2013.

Osteoporosis prevention, diagnosis, and therapy. NIH Consens Statement. 2000;17(1):1-45

Postmenopausal osteoporosis: when and how to measure bone mineral density. Consultant. 2000 Apr 1:781-789.

Last reviewed October 2013 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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