My dexa scan experience

I lie down on a bed, wearing a knee-length, fleecy gown and underpants. The room in the radiology centre is warm enough, though the day outside is cold. Not knowing what to expect, I wonder what the bone density scan, for which I’ve paid $80, will involve.

I had assumed that all I would have to do was take off my shoe, and put my foot into some sort of bone density measuring device. But there are, in fact, several types of density tests, and I am being given the one that is the most relevant for a pre-menopausal woman like me checking for signs of osteoporosis.

I had tried to side step the referral process and make a scan appointment myself, but these radiology people like a doctor involved in case there’s a need for follow-up treatment. So I phoned my GP’s practice and he faxed a referral to the radiology centre I had selected – it was near home.

Luckily the type of scan I had is reputedly the most accurate indicator of bone mass – the DEXA scan, which stands for dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry.

The young radiographer who had earlier directed me into the changing room appears again and shows in into the room where I will have the scan. I scuttle in before anyone can see me looking like a half naked bag lady!

From here on it is a dream, really: the most painless and least invasive medical procedure I have ever had. I almost fall asleep.

I do have to ask questions, but they are answered adequately. The scan uses very low radiation, so the radiographer can be in the same room without wearing protective clothing.

She asks my weight (there are scales in the room if you need them) and height. My age is on the referral form.

The DEXA scanner is different from x-ray and ultrasound machines. You lie on you back the whole time, and a long, thin metal arm reaches across the bed, about 0.5m above your body.

First, the spine picture. The radiographer asks you to lift your legs so she can put a large, square cushion under your knees, which keeps your thighs up, almost at right angles to the bed.

Operated from a desk in the corner of the room, the machine arm then slowly slides the length of the bed above your torso, making a bit of a racket as it moves.

Then you have to move your feet apart while the radiographer places a thin metal plate between your legs, in the knee/thigh area. All done matter-of-factly; she’s done this a thousand times. Then, asking you to relax with your legs out straight, she puts a soft strap around each ankle, and yanks them gently to turn your legs at an angle that apparently “opens out the hip joints” for a good picture of the bones. It’s not as embarrassing as it sounds.

After two more minutes of the machine gliding back and forth above you, you’re getting dressed again. The whole procedure took only 20 minutes.

The scan is evaluated by a doctor (radiologist) later that day. The next day a copy is mailed to my GP, and I also receive one.

But I have to confess that when I see my results they don’t mean much – they look are like in a foreign language, lists of figures and pictures that mean nothing to me, plus a summary sentence that gives T-scores and recommends another scan in two years.

The radiology centre cannot find a staff member to explain the results when I phone, so I surf the net to discover how to interpret them. I decide I’m disease-free, and will have another scan in two years.


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