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A bone density test - also called densitometry or DXA scan - determines whether you have osteoporosis or are at risk of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to become more fragile and more likely to break.

In the past, osteoporosis could only be detected after you broke a bone. By that time, however, your bones could be quite weak. A bone density test makes it possible to know your risk of breaking bones before the fact.

A bone density test uses X-rays to measure how many grams of calcium and other bone minerals are packed into a segment of bone. A bone density test is a fairly accurate predictor of your risk of fracture.

Who should have a DXA scan?

Consult with your physician if you think you might benefit from knowing your bone density. The test is most often administered to those at highest risk of developing osteoporosis, or to monitor the effectiveness of treatment for osteoporosis. A bone density test is recommend for:

  • All women aged 65 and older.
  • All men aged 70 and older.
  • Anyone with a fragility fracture.
  • Anyone with a disease, condition or medication associated with osteoporosis.
  • Anyone who is considering therapy for osteoporosis, if bone density testing would facilitate the decision.
  • Women who have been on hormone replacement therapy for prolonged periods.
  • Anyone being treated for osteoporosis, to monitor the effects of therapy.

What is VFA?

VFA stands for Vertebral Fracture Assessment. VFA is done on the same machine as a DXA scan.  This is a test that looks at the individual bones in your back, called vertebral bodies, to see if any of them have an abnormal shape. If the height of one of these bones is less than expected, it could be due to a vertebral fracture. This may be the result of osteoporosis or an injury to the spine.

VFA is particularly useful if you are at high risk for vertebral fracture but do not know if you have one. If you have become shorter with age (more than 1.5 inches loss of height since your tallest), have stooped posture, previous fracture of any type as an adult, or unexplained back pain, you may have a vertebral fracture.

A physician order is required for DXA or VFA test. For VFA, it's a good idea to check with your health plan to determine your insurance coverage.