Osteoporosis is a disease in which the bones become weak and brittle. Often, osteoporosis is not suspected until a person falls and breaks a bone. But it can be found before any fractures occur. Being diagnosed means you can take steps to reduce bone loss and avoid fractures.
How is osteoporosis diagnosed?
To start, your doctor may:
- Check your medical history. Information about your diet, personal and family history of broken bones, exercise habits, and medications can help your doctor decide if you are at risk for osteoporosis.
- Do a physical exam. A loss of height or stooped posture may be a sign of osteoporosis.
- Order lab tests. Blood and urine tests can help your doctor find conditions that could lead to bone loss.
- Do x-rays. Your doctor may x-ray your spine if you have symptoms of a fracture, such as severe back pain. X-rays can show a recent fracture or one that happened in the past, but they are not used to screen for osteoporosis.
If osteoporosis is suspected, your doctor may suggest that you have a bone mineral test.
What is a bone mineral density test?
A bone mineral density test is an x-ray test used to detect osteoporosis. It can spot bone loss in its earliest stages, before fractures occur. The results can be used to predict the risk of future fractures. Later, it can be repeated to see how well treatment is working.
There are several ways to measure bone density. The most common is DXA, short for dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry. DXA is usually used to measure bone mineral density in the lower spine and hip. If the test shows a normal bone density, you are at low risk for a fracture. The lower the bone density, the greater the risk of fracture.
Who should be screened for osteoporosis?
Screening means looking for a disease before it causes symptoms. To decide who should be screened for osteoporosis, many doctors rely on guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). These guidelines are considered the "gold standard" because they are based on careful reviews of the best research.
The USPSTF recommends DXA bone mineral density testing for:
- Women age 65 and older
- Women younger than 65 who have a fracture risk that is the same as or greater than that of a 65-year-old woman
Your doctor can assess your risk for fracture and tell you when you should have bone density testing.
Created on 07/02/2007
Updated on 06/15/2011
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Osteoporosis: the diagnosis.
- U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Screening for osteoporosis.
- National Guideline Clearinghouse (NGC). Guideline synthesis: screening and risk assessment for osteoporosis in postmenopausal women.
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Osteoporosis handout on health.