What you need to know about your bones: osteoporosis, DEXA, and healthy habits
Osteoporosis is often called a silent disease because in many cases, it’s not detected until a bone fracture occurs. Long before that happens, though, your body may be talking to you. Loss of height over time and back pain may be signs of bone loss.
“Osteopenia is the beginning of osteoporosis,” said Sierra-Amber Mabry, RT, Prescott Medical Imaging (PMI) at Dignity Health, Yavapai Regional Medical Center (YRMC). “Osteoporosis causes low bone mass and makes you more susceptible to spontaneous, non-trauma fractures.”
An estimated 10 million Americans, 80 percent of them women, suffer from osteoporosis. An additional 44 million Americans have osteopenia, placing them at increased risk for osteoporosis.
How DEXA Works
Screening for bone density – how strong your bones are – is the only way to determine if you have osteoporosis or osteopenia. The imaging experts at PMI in Prescott and the Breast Care Center at Dignity Health, YRMC East in Prescott Valley use advanced dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) technology to:
- Measure bone density and loss.
- Assess risk for bone fractures.
- Screen for osteoporosis, osteopenia and other bone-related health problems.
Using state-of-the-art equipment, technologists scan your hip bones and lower spine, or your forearms. These exams are painless and use a much lower level of radiation than standard x-rays.
“The radiation from a DEXA scan is lower than the amount of radiation you receive in a single day from background radiation sources like the sun and the environment,” Mabry said.
Getting Ready for DEXA
A DEXA scan takes a total of 20 minutes from the changing room to the exam room. During the exam, you lie on your back as the scanner passes over your body. Your radiologic technologist will place a sponge block under your knees to alleviate lower-back discomfort.
“Unlike an MRI or a CT scan, DEXA scans are open,” Mabry explains. “The DEXA x-ray table does not have an enclosed tube, which can make some people feel claustrophobic.”
If you’re scheduled for a DEXA, Mabry recommends that you:
- Bring the DEXA order from your provider.
- Wear comfortable clothing that you can change out of and back into quickly.
- Leave your jewelry at home.
- Don’t take calcium pills for 24 hours prior to your scan.
“We’ll ask you to change into a gown for your DEXA exam,” Mabry says. “The purpose of this is to ensure we have uniformity for every exam so that we don’t have to repeat your scan. It also saves you time if you arrive in clothing you can change in and out of quickly.”
Understanding your DEXA Results
Your DEXA scan results are sent to your physician within 24-48 hours after the exam. Your results are available to you within 72 hours on YRMC Care Connect, YRMC’s patient portal.
DEXA scan results are presented as a “T-score” and fall into the following ranges:
- +1.0 to -1.0 = normal bone density.
- -1.0 and -2.5 = osteopenia or low bone density.
- -2.5 or below = osteoporosis.
“Lots of people don’t know that osteopenia and osteoporosis are treatable,” Mabry says. “Your doctor can give you medication and your bone density can improve. This means you’ll be less likely to suffer a non-trauma fracture in the future.”
You can also speak to your physician about other ways to improve your bone health, such as:
- Consuming a calcium-rich diet.
- Taking calcium and vitamin D.
- Doing weight-bearing (walking, jogging and light aerobics, for example) and strengthening exercises (free weights, weight machines, lunges, planks and more).
- Giving up smoking.
- Consuming alcohol in moderation.
To schedule a DEXA exam, talk to your healthcare provider or call PMI or the Breast Care Center at 928.771.7577.