Diagnosis and treatment

lady indoors

Waiting until you break a bone is not the ideal way to detect osteoporosis. So if several of the risk factors mentioned earlier apply to you, including a family member with osteoporosis, discuss this with your GP. 

If you appear to be at high risk of breaking a bone or have broken a bone after a relatively minor fall, you may be sent for a bone density scan.

DXA scanner

The most common way to diagnose osteoporosis is to have a bone density scan. This uses a machine, known as a DXA (Dual energy X-ray Absorptiometry) scanner. To have a DXA scan you will need to wear loose clothing and lie on your back on a couch, while your hip and spine are scanned using low doses of radiation.

It takes about 10 - 20 minutes. Your bone density is compared with the average to produce a ‘T score’. A ‘T score’ of minus 2.5 standard deviations (SD) or less indicates osteoporosis.

Your scan results are looked at alongside other risk factors such as your age and family history. This helps decide if you are currently at a high risk of breaking a bone and whether drug treatment should be considered.

FRAX tool

Before ordering a scan, your doctor may also use the World Health Organisation (WHO) FRAX® tool. This calculates your risk, over the next 10 years, of breaking a bone in your hip or other bone such as wrist, upper arm or a bone in your spine. This tool can be used for women after the menopause and for men over 50.

  • If you are at low risk, you are likely to be given advice about diet, exercise, drinking and smoking.
  • If your risk is high, then medication can be considered without the need for a bone scan.
  • If your risk is between low and high, a doctor may request a bone scan and then recalculate your risk of a broken bone and what steps can be taken to reduce your risk.

Best treatment guidance

In January 2011, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) updated its guidance documents for the treatment of:

  • post menopausal women diagnosed with osteoporosis but who have not had a fracture (TA160)
  • post menopausal women who have had a fracture because of osteoporosis (TA161)

The guidance explains circumstances when drugs named in one or both guidance documents should and should not be used to prevent bone fractures.

As the drugs work best when you are getting enough calcium and vitamin D, you may be prescribed supplements. The guidance takes account of significant risk factors as well as bone density.

A patient version of this guidance is available by calling the NICE orderline on 0845 003 7783, or you can read it on the NICE website.

This guidance does not apply to postmenopausal women who are on long-term steroids.

Your Age UK

Set your location to see what Age UK offers in your local area.

Age UK Advice:
0800 169 2081

Close window
Display options

Set the appearance of this website so you can read it more easily

Text size

Background/foreground


To see information relating to Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales set your preference below: