What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a disease that affects your bones. It means that you have bones that are thin and brittle with lots of holes inside them like a sponge. This makes them easy to break. Osteoporosis can lead to broken bones (fractures) in the hip, spine, and wrist. These fractures can be disabling and may make it hard for you to live on your own.
Osteoporosis affects millions of older adults. It usually occurs after age 60. It's most common in women, but men can get it too.
Healthy Bone Versus Bone Weakened by Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a progressive disease that causes bones to become thin and porous, significantly increasing the risk for spinal and hip fractures. Osteoporosis usually does not have an effect on people until they are 60 or older.
What are the symptoms of osteoporosis?
In the early stages of osteoporosis, you probably won't have symptoms. As the disease progresses, you may have symptoms related to weakened bones, such as:
- Broken bones (fractures) that might occur with a minor injury, especially in the hip, spine, and wrist.
- Back pain.
- Loss of height and stooped posture.
- A curved upper back (dowager's hump). You might notice that you aren't as tall as you used to be.
- Compression fractures in the spine that may cause severe back pain. But sometimes these fractures cause only minor symptoms or no symptoms at all.
How is osteoporosis diagnosed?
To diagnose osteoporosis, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and will do a physical exam. You may also have a test that measures your bone strength (bone density test) and your risk for a broken bone.
During the physical exam, the doctor will:
- Measure your height and compare the results with past measurements.
- Examine your body for signs of previous broken bones, such as changes in the shape of your long bones and spine.
It's important to find and treat osteoporosis early to prevent broken bones. Experts recommend bone density testing for women age 65 and older. If you have a higher risk for broken bones, it's best to start getting the test sooner.
A bone density test helps your doctor estimate the strength of your bones. If the test finds that your bone thickness is less than normal but is not osteoporosis, you may have low bone density (sometimes called osteopenia). It's a less severe type of bone thinning.
Routine urine and blood tests can rule out other medical conditions. These include hyperparathyroidism, hyperthyroidism, and Cushing's syndrome. These conditions can cause bone loss.
Ultrasound is sometimes offered at events such as health fairs as a quick screening test for osteoporosis. Ultrasound by itself isn't a reliable test for osteoporosis. But if results of an ultrasound screening find low bone density, your doctor can help you decide if you should have a bone density test.
How is osteoporosis treated?
Treatment for osteoporosis includes making healthy changes, such as in how you eat and exercise. And you can also take medicine to reduce bone loss and to build bone strength. Medicine can also give you relief from pain caused by broken bones or other changes to your bones. You may also need treatment for compression fractures.
Things you can do include:
- Getting enough calcium and vitamin D. Ask your doctor if you need to take a calcium plus vitamin D supplement. You may be able to get enough calcium and vitamin D through your diet.
- Doing weight-bearing exercise. This may be part of physical therapy.
- Not drinking as much alcohol and not smoking.
- Avoiding falls.
- Taking medicine.
After you've been diagnosed with bone loss, you'll need to have regular follow-up tests to track the disease.
If you've had a fracture, your doctor may suggest that you see a fracture liaison service. In this program, health professionals will work with you to help prevent future fractures.
Treatment for compression fractures
Compression fractures from osteoporosis can cause a lot of back pain. The pain can last for several weeks. Treatments to relieve your pain include over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) if your doctor says NSAIDs are safe for you. And you may take stronger prescription medicine.
If you have a fractured bone related to osteoporosis, treatment to slow your bone thinning is very important. If you've had a spinal fracture, you are at risk of having another.
If spinal compression fractures are causing nerve roots to be compressed, your doctor may talk with you about having surgery to stabilize the crushed spinal bones (vertebrae).
Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.