What is a DEXA scan and Who Should Get One?

Photo of a person in a DEXA scan machine

Medical terminology can often be confusing and difficult to understand for the average person. For example, do you know the answer to the question “What is a DEXA scan?”  Or  what the results are used for, and whether or not you should have one?

Like many medical procedures a DEXA scan is a powerful diagnostic tool that can help you and your doctor manage your health and well-being.

So Exactly What Is a DEXA Scan

A dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DEXA Scan, is a non-invasive procedure that uses a small dose of ionizing radiation to obtain images of the bones inside your body.

During the scan, the doctor uses two low-energy x-ray beams to get an image of both the bones and soft tissue. This is more effective than a standard x-ray because it can reveal even the smallest changes in bone density.

What Is a DEXA Scan Used for?

The most common use for a DEXA scan is to determine whether your bones are weak and at risk of fracture. It is also the main tool doctors use to diagnose osteoporosis and to assess and your risk factors for developing osteoporotic fractures.

It can also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of any prescribed osteoporosis treatments to determine whether the bone loss is improving, stable, or worsening.

How Does a DEXA Scan Work?

If you’re scheduled for a DEXA scan, you’ll be asked to put on a hospital gown and remove all metal jewelry. Then, you’ll lay very still on a table that contains a thin film. Above you, there will be an arm suspended above the table.

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The DXA machine sends two invisible beams of low-dose x-rays through the area of the body that is being examined. One of the beams is absorbed by the soft tissues like your muscles. The other beam focuses on the bone. The DXA machine then computes your bone density based on an equation that subtracts the soft tissue from the total.

Where is a DEXA Scan Performed?

DEXA scans are an outpatient procedure that takes very little time and preparation on your part. It can be performed either in a hospital setting, or in some cases, your doctor’s office.

You can expect the test to take from 10 to 30 minutes. A peripheral scan, which is used for the feet and hands, is also used at times and, again, takes only moments and reveals near instant results.

What Should I Do Before a DEXA Scan?

For many medical tests and procedures, you have to prepare ahead of time, however, there are no special preparations necessary before you have a DEXA scan performed.

You can eat and drink as you normally would, right up to the moment of your test. If you’re taking a calcium supplement, your doctor may ask you to refrain from taking it for at least 24 hours before the scan.

When Should I Get a DEXA Scan?

If your doctor has recommended a DEXA scan, you should follow through with the appointment to avoid future issues with bone density. You may also want to consider talking to your doctor about bone density testing if any of the following applies to you:

  • You are a post-menopausal woman who isn’t taking estrogen.
  • You have a personal or maternal history of hip fractures.
  • You are post-menopausal and over 5 feet 7 inches tall.
  • You are post-menopausal and weigh less than 125 pounds.
  • You are a man with conditions that cause bone loss like rheumatoid arthritis, chronic kidney or liver disease.
  • You are taking medications that are known to cause bone loss.
  • You experience a bone fracture after mild trauma.
  • There is a history of osteoporosis in your family.

If your doctor recommends a DEXA scan, don’t worry, it’s a painless, quick test. It’s also a good way to stay on top of your health by monitoring your bone density to avoid fractures. You may have to repeat the scan every couple of years to evaluate whether there’s been any significant change in bone density.

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