Diagnosing osteoporosis

In medical terms, 'osteoporosis' is low bone density, as measured in a bone density scan. However, there are other known risk factors that can affect overall bone strength. This means diagnosing osteoporosis is often not as simple as a single test or examination, and the reality of an osteoporosis diagnosis can differ between individuals.  

Osteoporosis and low bone strength can be tested in a number of different ways. The most common way for bone density to be assessed is through a DXA scan. Osteoporosis risk factors and risk of breaking a bone is assessed using a FRAX assessment. There are other, less common, scans and tests that are sometimes used as tools for diagnosis, or monitoring the condition over time.

Bone density (DXA) scan

FRAX assessment

Other investigations for osteoporosis

Identifying people at risk of osteoporosis

It is important that people who have broken a bone and are at risk of osteoporosis are identified quickly, so they can be referred for tests and put on treatment - if needed - to help lower their risk of further breaks in the future. 

There are a number of different ways people with osteoporosis can be identified. Some people may be identified before experiencing broken bones by speaking to their GP about their risk of osteoporosis, based on their family or medical history, or after reading about osteoporosis. For most people with osteoporosis, a diagnosis usually takes place after a bone has already been broken. Unfortunately, (due to limited resource and awareness amongst Health Professionals???), an individual may experience multiple fractures before finding out they have osteoporosis.

The National Osteoporosis Society is working with the NHS to help set up and maintain special hospital services to identify people who have broken a bone because of osteoporosis. The Charity also runs Health Professional training programmes and public awareness campaigns, to help ensure even more people who are at risk of osteoporosis receive the diagnosis and treatment they need to lower their risk of breaking a bone. Find out more by selecting an option below.

  • Fracture Liaison Services (FLS)
  • Stop at One

Identifying vertebral fractures

Whilst most broken bones are easily diagnosed, vertebral compression fractures can be a bit harder to recognise.

The most common symptoms of vertebral compression fractures are back pain, loss of height or curvature of the spine, although sometimes vertebral fractures can present no symptoms at all. This can make them difficult to quickly assess, and leaves the individual at risk of suffering further fractures before receiving a diagnosis and treatment.

Often, an individual will visit their doctor after experiencing back pain, or another symptom, but may not be aware they have broken a bone. As the symptoms of this kind of fracture are similar to those for other conditions, it can take some time for an osteoporosis diagnosis to be received. To help raise awareness amongst Health Professionals of the importance of quick diagnosis and treatment for people with vertebral compression fractures, the National Osteoporosis Society runs Health Professional training programmes and issues guidance documents to help improve standards of care.