Diagnostics Related to the Skeletal System

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  • 0:03 Diagnostic Medical Tests
  • 0:40 Non-Invasive Methods
  • 3:04 Invasive Methods
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

From fractures to ligament tears to cancer, disorders of the skeletal system and joints are very common. In this lesson, learn about the diagnostic tests that a doctor might use to determine exactly what is wrong with a patient suffering from a skeletal system disorder.

Diagnostic Medical Tests

Have you ever broken a bone or had a joint injury? Or maybe your knee was hurting, and you didn't know why? If so, you probably had some medical diagnostic tests performed to help your doctor figure out exactly what was wrong with you.

Disorders of the skeletal system are very common, and most people have had at least one medical test performed to diagnose a bone illness or injury. Not all bone disorders are diagnosed the same way, and there are different types of medical tests that you might have undertaken depending on your symptoms and the area of the body that was affected. Let's look at each of the diagnostic tests that might be performed to diagnose a skeletal system disorder.

Non-Invasive Methods

Medical tests to diagnose skeletal disorders can be divided into two groups depending on whether surgery is required or not. Procedures that do not require surgery are called non-invasive. If you go to a doctor with pain in a bone or joint, the first procedure done is likely to be a radiograph. A radiograph uses x-rays to produce an image of the bones inside your body.

Radiographs can be used to diagnose bone fractures, arthritis and other forms of joint damage and bone tumors. Although radiographs are very helpful in diagnosing bone disorders, repeated exposure to x-rays is not healthy and can even cause cancer.

Another non-invasive medical test that might be used to diagnose skeletal disorders is magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. In an MRI, a powerful magnet causes the tissues of your body to release radio waves that are detected by a computer and used to make an image.

Since an MRI does not use x-rays, it is considered a safer procedure than radiography. It is also easier to image the soft tissue surrounding a bone or joint with an MRI than with x-rays. Just like radiography, MRIs can also be used to diagnose fractures, joint disorders, like arthritis, and bone cancers. It can also diagnose problems with the ligaments and tendons and other soft tissues near the affected bone or joint.

Although radiographs and MRIs are great at diagnosing fractures, joint damage and cancer, neither are very good at detecting osteoporosis. Osteoporosis occurs when bones gradually lose mineral density and, as a result, become more porous and weaker.

It usually occurs in older people and significantly increases fracture risk. It would be great to be able to identify and treat people with osteoporosis before they fall and break a bone. A non-invasive imaging technique called dual energy x-ray absorptiometry, or DXA, is usually used to do this.

In a DXA scan, two x-ray beams of different intensity are used to determine total bone mineral density. To help you remember this, think about how dual means 'two,' so dual energy x-ray absorptiometry uses two x-rays instead of just one. The lower your bone mineral density, the higher your risk of osteoporotic bone fractures so these scans are a very powerful tool in early detection of osteoporosis.

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