A bone density test checks if you have osteoporosis. However, people also question, “Does a bone density test show cancer?”. The most commonly tested bones are in the spine, hip, and sometimes the forearm.

The straightforward answer is no. It can only detect the strength of your bones. However, a bone scan can indicate the growth of cancerous cells.

What Is a Bone Density Test?

Sometimes, it’s helpful to explain something by saying what it isn’t. So,

  • A bone density test is NOT an MRI.
  • A bone density test does NOT detect cancer.
  • A bone density test does NOT show arthritis.

A bone density test is a low-level X-ray that measures the mineral content of your bones. It’s often called a DEXA (or DXA) scan, which stands for dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry. The recommended age for a DEXA scan varies by individual. Bone density tests are recommended for:

  • People who have broken a bone after age 50
  • People aged 50+ with risk factors
  • Women aged 65+ without risk factors
  • Men aged 70+ without risk factors

Common risk factors include a family history of osteoporosis, frequent falls, low vitamin D, smoking, and excessive alcohol intake.

What Can Show Up on a Bone Density Test?

The more minerals your bones have, the denser and stronger they are, making them less likely to break. Bone density tests are different from bone scans. Bone scans need an injection first and are typically used to find fractures, cancer, infections, and other bone problems. Further conditions a bone density test can detect are:

  • Decreases in bone density before you break a bone
  • Confirm a diagnosis of osteoporosis
  • Monitor osteoporosis treatment

Does a Bone Density Test Show Arthritis?

A bone density test doesn’t show arthritis; it shows how healthy your bones are, not your joints. Doctors use it to diagnose and measure osteoporosis. People with rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to have bone loss for various reasons.

How Is a Bone Density Test Done on a Woman?

Bone density tests are usually done in radiology offices. A DEXA scan is quick and painless. The patient lies on their back on a padded table while a scanning machine passes over her hips and lower spine, and a second X-ray device passes underneath. The scan uses low-dose X-rays to measure the strength (density) of the bones. A radiographer does the scan, which takes about 10–20 minutes.

How Are DEXA Scan Results Measured?

The results of a DEXA scan are given as two scores:

  • T-score: This score compares your bone density to that of a young, healthy adult. A normal T-score is zero. If the T-score is negative, it means your bones are weaker than normal. A T-score of –2.5 or lower usually indicates osteoporosis.
  • Z-score: This score compares your bone density to that of people in your age group. Z-scores are used only for pre-menopausal women and men under 50. Since we don’t have as much data for these groups, the Z-score isn’t as useful as the T-score, and you can generally ignore it.

Final Word

Bone density tests aren’t perfect, but they can still provide useful information about the overall trend of your bone strength over time. Therefore, wondering, “Does a bone density test show cancer?” does not make sense. Only a bone biopsy can help in this regard.

Visit Dr. Hunaid Dollar at the Internal Medicine Diagnostic Center. Our board-certified internal medicine expert diagnoses and treats various acute and chronic conditions. Call us at (281) 252-8600 to book an appointment.

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