Osteoporosis is a disease characterized by bones losing the calcium and structure that keep them strong. It is a very common disease in older men and post-menopausal women, and especially in Caucasian and Southeast Asian women.
Since the disease causes bones to become brittle and weak, those with osteoporosis are prone to fractures, especially in their hips, spine, and wrist. In the past, it was thought that those with osteoporosis broke their bones by falling. It is now known that severely weakened bones can spontaneously break, leading to a fall.
Hip fractures are of particular concern, because they typically necessitate major surgery followed by hospitalization, and can cause permanent disability and even death.
Osteopenia is a decrease in the mineral density of bones that can be, but is not always, a precursor to osteoporosis. As with osteoporosis, it is associated with the loss of estrogen that accompanies menopause in women.
Why is a bone density scan important?
An early osteopenia or osteoporosis diagnosis is the key to preventing debilitating fractures. A bone density scan can give your physician an osteopenia or osteoporosis diagnosis before you break any bones, or indicate whether you are at risk for either condition. A bone density scan lets patients find out if they have the early signs of bone loss and take steps to prevent further loss.
Osteoporosis testing uses special, low-dose X-rays to measure how much bone mineral content is packed into a given segment of bone. Dense bones contain more calcium. And the denser your bones are, the stronger they are, and thus less likely to break.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends osteoporosis screening for all women over 65, or those who are 60 but are at increased risk for developing osteoporosis. Risk factors for the disease include low body weight, a personal history of bone breakage, a family history of osteoporosis, and the use of certain medications such as steroids and anti-seizure medications that can cause bone loss.
Does osteoporosis screening hurt? Is it accurate?
Bone density scan is fast, easy, and painless. The test takes only about 15 minutes, during which the client lies quietly on a comfortable bed on the scanner. The scanner emits low-dose X-rays and creates images of the spine, hip, or wrist. The scan exposes the patient to a tiny amount of radiation, about one-fiftieth that of a chest X-ray.
This method of osteoporosis testing is very precise, can also detect whether you have osteopenia and if given early enough, can give an early osteopenia or osteoporosis diagnosis, so a fracture can be prevented by taking the necessary steps to halt or slow bone loss.
What should I do after an osteoporosis/osteopenia diagnosis?
A bone density scan can determine whether our patients have weakening bones, but it cannot tell you the cause. To find out the cause of bone loss, you will need a complete medical evaluation, which will help your doctor better interpret the results of the scan.
The key to treating osteoporosis is to treat the underlying disease and to prevent fractures before they strike.
Generally, patients at risk for osteoporosis or osteopenia are treated with vitamin D and calcium supplements. Those with osteoporosis or osteopenia, or those who are at high risk, can be treated with an array of prescription medications such as Fosamax® and Actonel®. There is also an exciting new class of drugs called Dual Action Bone Agents, which actually stimulate the growth of bone-building cells. The exact treatment regimen will be provided by your doctor after he receives the results of the bone density test.
Your doctor may also recommend dietary changes and exercise. Weight-bearing exercises like jogging and walking treat osteoporosis and osteopenia by improving bone mineral density and developing major muscle groups, which reduces the risk of falls. In addition, increasing your intake of calcium, vitamin D, and other supplements such as magnesium has been shown to improve bone density.