Answers to Common Osteoporosis Questions
Osteoporosis is a condition of decreased bone mass. This leads to fragile bones that are at an increased risk for fractures. In fact, it will take much less stress on an osteoporotic bone to cause it to fracture than it would on a healthy bone.
Though post-menopausal women are most commonly associated with osteoporosis, men also experience it. In fact, it's estimated that 20% of the 10 million Americans with osteoporosis are men.
If you have osteoporosis, your bones are weak and prone to fracture. Fractured bones caused by osteoporosis are most commonly located in the hip, spine, and wrist.
What Are the Symptoms of Osteoporosis?
There are usually no tell-tale symptoms that alert you to the presence of osteoporosis early on in its progression.
You may feel a dull pain in your bones or muscles at the onset of the disease. But for most people, the first indication that they have osteoporosis is a fracture. These fractures may cause a loss of height, and you may notice your spine starting to hunch forward. The problem is, when these things happen, osteoporosis is already in its advanced stages.
What Causes Osteoporosis?
There are many factors that contribute to and exacerbate the onset of osteoporosis. They include:
- Activity level
- Low sex hormones (estrogen in women; testosterone in men)
- Medical conditions (including intestinal problems and kidney disease)
- Medications (such as glucocorticoids)
- Smoking and heavy alcohol consumption
What Are the Risk Factors for Osteoporosis?
Some of the most common osteoporosis risk factors are often unavoidable; that is, you can’t control their occurrence.
These factors include:
- Being female
- Being older
- Having a family history of osteoporosis
- Having a history of broken bones
While there are many uncontrollable factors that may contribute to your osteoporosis risk, there are certain lifestyle behaviors that you can control that will also impact your chances of developing the disease:
- Eating a diet low in calcium and Vitamin D
- Being inactive
How Is Osteoporosis Treated?
There are many different ways to treat osteoporosis. Non-surgical methods include:
- Bracing: The majority of osteoporosis-related fractures occur in the wrist, spine, or hip. Your doctor may recommend a brace if you have a fracture—particularly if you have a spinal fracture.
- Calcium and vitamin D: You probably already understand that calcium is good for your bones and helps ward off osteoporosis. The nutrient is essentially a building block of bone, and it helps maintain bone strength throughout your lifetime. But calcium can only reach its full bone-building potential if your body has enough vitamin D.
- Drugs and medications: Most people with osteoporosis will need some form of prescription medication. If you have an osteoporosis-related fracture, you will need a medication to help your bones recover and to prevent future fractures. If you’ve learned you have low bone density but don’t have a fracture, you may take a medication to help prevent fractures and further bone loss.
- Estrogen replacement therapy: Estrogen replacement therapy used to be the only FDA-approved treatment to prevent osteoporosis. There are now many others, but estrogen remains a fairly common treatment to conserve bone mass and prevent osteoporosis-related fractures in post-menopausal women.
- Exercise: Weight-bearing, resistance, and balance exercises are just a few of the activities you can do to build and maintain strong, healthy bones that are less prone to osteoporosis-related fractures. The earlier you begin a regular exercise program, the better. If you build strong bones early on in life and maintain them as an adult, the less likely you are to have bones that break.
- Physical therapy: You may want to visit a physical therapist to help you recover from an osteoporosis-related fracture. Physical therapy won’t heal the broken bone—but it will give you better odds of a successful recovery. Your physical therapist will create a program based on your specific case of osteoporosis. He or she will take into account your health and fitness level, in addition to your personal risk for fractures, to help cater the rehabilitation program specifically for you.
If you have a serious fracture, you’ll most likely need surgery. The most common locations for osteoporosis-related fractures are in the hip, spine, and wrist. To learn about the surgical techniques used to treat fractures in these locations, you can read our article about surgery for osteoporosis