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My clinician is concerned about my loss of height of1 inch in the past year. Does that mean I definitely have osteoporosis?

Once you reach midlife, you should be measured for height each year that you go for an annual check-up. In addition to height, your spine should be assessed for kyphosis (prominent upper curve of the spine giving a hunched-over appearance). Although loss of height can mean other things such as poor posture, decreased muscle strength, or even poor measuring techniques, it can be a good indicator of bone loss in the spine. In fact, in one study, 75% of new vertebral fractures were found in individuals who had lost 1 to 2 inches in height.

Tiny compression fractures of the vertebrae can happen silently (without pain), reducing your height and causing the spine to curve. Figure 6 (Question 18) shows the progression from a normal spine to the curved spine, causing a loss of height. Your clinician is right to be concerned, and you should be further evaluated for osteoporosis.

How is osteoporosis diagnosed?

Conventional x-rays are not used to diagnose osteoporosis; however, osteoporosis can sometimes be seen on x-rays. The x-rays used to diagnose a fracture can show osteoporosis, but only if you have a significant amount of bone loss—that is, 30% to 40%.

There are, however, other tests that can be used specifically to evaluate your bone health. All bone mineral density (BMD) tests are safe, painless, and noninvasive. Most of the tests subject you to no more radiation than that received from the atmosphere during a crosscountry airplane trip. One of the BMD tests uses ultrasound technology.

You should not be tested for bone density if you are pregnant or have had other x-ray studies that require dye within 2 weeks of bone density testing. Testing is limited for individuals who weigh more than 250 pounds. This is both because many machines can only hold individuals who weigh 250 pounds or less and because the more soft tissue there is, the harder it is to distinguish it from bone, making it difficult to obtain accurate results.

The "gold standard" (best test) for diagnosing osteoporosis or identifying osteopenia is dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA)[1]. Because your hip, spine, or whole body may be evaluated using DXA, you will need to lie down on an x-ray type of table while a

A woman getting a bone mineral density test with a DXA machine. The test is safe, noninvasive, and painless. © Photodisc

Figure 7 A woman getting a bone mineral density test with a DXA machine. The test is safe, noninvasive, and painless. © Photodisc.

machine takes measurements of your bone density. The measurements and images of your bones are sent to a computer nearby, usually in the same room. Figure 7 shows a woman undergoing bone mineral density testing with a DXA machine.

DXA scan measurements are very precise and use very little radiation. They are also the best tests for monitoring changes in bone density and evaluating effectiveness of treatments over time. It is best to have your bone density measured on the same machine and by the same technician each time you have it done, if possible. The presence of fractures, osteoarthritis[2], and calcifications (calcium deposits) can interfere with the accuracy of BMD testing, particularly of the spine (see Questions 31-32).

The peripheral dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (pDXA)[3] scan uses the same technology as the DXA but measures bone density in your wrist, forearm, finger, or heel (see Questions 24-25).

If a central DXA test shows osteoporosis at one or more sites, your clinician will most likely do some laboratory tests prior to confirming the diagnosis because your clinical history and laboratory results are needed before deciding if it is osteoporosis alone, or if there is another problem causing secondary osteoporosis or medication(s) causing bone loss (see Questions 9,15,16, and 33).

  • [1] A type of radiological test used to precisely determine bone mineral density with very little radiation.
  • [2] Inflammation and stiffness of the joints that usually occurs in older persons as a result of deterioration of the cartilage around the joints.
  • [3] A scan using the same technology as the DXA but measures bone density in the wrist, forearm, finger, or heel; it is only used for screening purposes, as a diagnosis of osteoporosis must be made with a DXA.
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