Should I get an osteoporosis screening at the pharmacy?
Not if the screening device scans your heel to capture your bone density measurement, instead of the lower spine or hip. Bone density measurements help determine if you have osteoporosis. But heel scans can be inaccurate, say our medical consultants. The problem is that “normal” results could provide a false sense of security. For a better assessment, and to help determine whether you even need the test at all, discuss with your doctor.
“The heel may not be representative of the rest of the skeletal system,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., chief medical adviser for Consumer Reports. “And the ultrasound equipment used in these settings does not produce nearly as accurate a result as scans of the hip and lower spine.”
Regardless of the setting, bone density screenings are frequently overdone. Women at average risk for osteoporosis don’t need to be tested until age 65; men, age 70. In younger people, any bone loss is likely to be a milder form called osteopenia that does not substantially increase fracture risk. In those cases, any small benefit to be gained from using bone-building drugs is far outweighed by their risks, which include heartburn, difficulty swallowing, throat or chest pain, and, paradoxically, a risk of thigh fractures.
Talk to your doctor about starting screening earlier if you drink heavily, smoke, or have other risk factors for weakened bones such as a fracture from a minor trauma, rheumatoid arthritis, low body weight, overactive thyroid or parathyroid gland, long-term use of corticosteroid medications, or a parent who had a hip fracture.