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Ultrasound imaging: a cheaper and more accessible way to screen for osteoporosis?

Posted: 25/04/2019

A recent study focusing on techniques to assess bone density has found that ultrasound scans may be as effective as more traditional Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) scans in catching the early signs of osteoporosis. Current clinical advice to assess bone health and to diagnose osteoporosis is to undergo a DEXA scan.

This is positive news for both healthcare providers and those at risk from poor bone density, as ultrasound scanning technology, which measures how sound waves move through the bone, is both cheaper and more easily accessible than DEXA scanning, enabling more patients to be diagnosed at an earlier stage.

Bone density is affected by nutrition, lifestyle and genetics, and decreases naturally with age. Osteoporosis is a condition that causes bones to become brittle and fragile due to low mineral density. It affects around a quarter of women over 65 and around 5% of men over 65.

Sufferers have a greatly increased risk of fractures than the general population, particularly in the hips, spine and wrists. Serious fractures can result in long hospital stays, increased chance of infection, and a loss of independence. As a result, osteoporosis can be debilitating, especially for older people.

A recent study reported in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association tested the effectiveness of ultrasound scans in determining bone density. The research in West Virginia assessed the correlation between DEXA scans and ultrasound scans on just under 100 patients.

DEXA scans require technical and very expensive large machinery that is much harder to transport than ultrasound equipment so not only is the cost of a simple ultrasound scan far lower but they can be more widely available to patients who may be at risk of osteoporosis across a wider range of locations. DEXA scans also expose patients to a low dose of radiation, while ultrasound scans do not and can be repeated more safely.

The results of the US study suggest that ultrasound scans can be equally effective in indicating whether there is any cause for concern in respect of bone density. While ultrasound cannot provide the same level of detail as a DEXA scan, it provides enough information to determine whether bone density is of concern. The study concluded that ultrasound scans therefore offer a lower cost, lower risk and more efficient means of screening bone health.

Victoria Johnson, an associate in the Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team, said: “This study offers very positive news for patients at risk of osteoporosis. Many people are diagnosed with osteoporosis only after they have already broken a bone, which can have a devastating effect on their quality of life, particularly if they are elderly.

“Such injuries could often be avoided if patients were aware of their condition and treated at an earlier stage. If the findings of this study are correct, ultrasound scanning would increase the chances of detecting osteoporosis in the early stages, greatly improving the health and independence of many older people.

“If you or a family member have concerns about the management or treatment of osteoporosis, or any other orthopaedic-related condition, please get in touch with our specialist orthopaedic team."

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