Bone density, or bone mineral density (BMD), is the amount of bone mineral in bone tissue. The concept is of mass of mineral per volume of bone (relating to density in the physics sense), although clinically it is measured by proxy according to optical density per square centimetre of bone surface upon imaging. Bone density measurement is used in clinical medicine as an indirect indicator of osteoporosis and fracture risk. It is measured by a procedure called densitometry, often performed in the radiology or nuclear medicine departments of hospitals or clinics. The measurement is painless and non-invasive and involves low radiation exposure. Measurements are most commonly made over the lumbar spine and over the upper part of the hip. The forearm may be scanned if the hip and lumbar spine are not accessible.
There is a statistical association between poor bone density and higher probability of fracture. Fractures of the legs and pelvis due to falls are a significant public health problem, especially in elderly women, leading to much medical cost, inability to live independently and even risk of death. Bone density measurements are used to screen people for osteoporosis risk and to identify those who might benefit from measures to improve bone strength.
Indications for testing
The risk factors for low bone density and primary considerations for a bone density test include:
- females age 65 or older.
- males age 70 or older.
- people over age 50 with:
- individuals with vertebral abnormalities.
- individuals receiving, or planning to receive, long-term glucocorticoid (steroid) therapy.
- individuals with primary hyperparathyroidism.
- individuals being monitored to assess the response or efficacy of an approved osteoporosis drug therapy.
- when androgen deprivation therapy is being planned for prostate cancer.
- individuals with a history of eating disorders.
Other considerations that are related to risk of low bone density and the need for a test include smoking habits, drinking habits, the long-term use of corticosteroid drugs, and a vitamin D deficiency.
Test result terms
Results of the test are often reported in three terms:
- Measured areal density in g cm−2.
- Z-score: the number of standard deviations above or below the mean for the patient's age, sex and ethnicity.
- T-score: the number of standard deviations above or below the mean for a healthy 30-year-old adult of the same sex and ethnicity as the patient.
Types of tests
While there are many different types of BMD tests, all are non-invasive. Most tests differ according to which bones are measured to determine the BMD result.
These tests include:
- Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA or DEXA)
- Dual X-ray Absorptiometry and Laser (DXL)
- Quantitative computed tomography (QCT)
- Quantitative ultrasound (QUS)
- Single photon absorptiometry (SPA)
- Dual photon absorptiometry (DPA)
- Digital X-ray radiogrammetry (DXR)
- Single energy X-ray absorptiometry (SEXA)
DXA is currently the most widely used, but quantitative ultrasound (QUS) has been described as a more cost-effective approach to measure bone density. The DXA test works by measuring a specific bone or bones, usually the spine, hip, and wrist. The density of these bones is then compared with an average index based on age, sex, and size. The resulting comparison is used to determine the risk for fractures and the stage of osteoporosis (if any) in an individual.
Average bone mineral density = BMC / W [g/cm2]
- BMC = bone mineral content = g/cm
- W = width at the scanned line
Results are generally scored by two measures, the T-score and the Z-score. Scores indicate the amount one's bone mineral density varies from the mean. Negative scores indicate lower bone density, and positive scores indicate higher.
Less than 0.5% of patients who underwent DXA-scanning were found to have a T- or Z-score of more than +4.0, often the cause of an unusually high bone mass (HBM) and associated with mild skeletal dysplasia and the inability to float in water.
The T-score is the relevant measure when screening for osteoporosis. It is the bone mineral density (BMD) at the site when compared to the young normal reference mean. It is a comparison of a patient's BMD to that of a healthy 30-year-old. The US standard is to use data for a 30-year-old of the same sex and ethnicity, but the WHO recommends using data for a 30-year-old white female for everyone. Values for 30-year-olds are used in post-menopausal women and men over age 50 because they better predict risk of future fracture. The criteria of the World Health Organization are:
- Normal is a T-score of −1.0 or higher
- Osteopenia is defined as between −1.0 and −2.5
- Osteoporosis is defined as −2.5 or lower, meaning a bone density that is two and a half standard deviations below the mean of a 30-year-old man/woman.
|WHO category||Age 50–64||Age > 64||Overall|
The Z-score for bone density is the comparison to the age-matched normal and is usually used in cases of severe osteoporosis. This is the standard score or number of standard deviations a patient's BMD differs from the average BMD of their age, sex, and ethnicity. This value is used in premenopausal women, men under the age of 50, and in children and adolescents. It is most useful when the score is less than 2 standard deviations below this normal. In this setting, it is helpful to scrutinize for coexisting illnesses or treatments that may contribute to osteoporosis such as glucocorticoid therapy, hyperparathyroidism, or alcoholism.
To prevent low bone density it is recommended to have sufficient calcium and vitamin D. Exercise, especially weight-bearing and resistance exercises are most effective for building bone. Weight-bearing exercise includes walking, jogging, dancing, and hiking. Resistance exercise is often accomplished through lifting weights. Other therapies, such as estrogens (e.g., estradiol, conjugated estrogens), selective estrogen receptor modulators (e.g., raloxifene, bazedoxifene), and bisphosphonates (e.g., alendronic acid, risedronic acid), can also be used to improve or maintain bone density.
- Bone+Density at the US National Library of Medicine Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)
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