What is osteoporosis?

Back to top

Osteoporosis is a progressive disease that affects the bones. The term itself means “porous bone,” which illustrates its effect on skeletal tissue. The condition often develops over many years, only to be discovered when a fracture occurs. Osteoporosis is associated with an increased risk of bone fracture, the loss of height, and dowager’s hump, which is a rounded upper back.

Like many progressive and degenerative diseases, osteoporosis is a serious health risk. It affects more than 53 million Americans and contributes to an estimated 2 million bone fractures every year. Most common in elderly folks, this is a condition that can lead to dangerous and life-alerting accidents. If you are in a high-risk group for osteoporosis, or if you are experiencing osteoporosis symptoms, schedule a visit with your doctor. While there is no cure for this condition, proper treatment can both protect and strengthen bones over time. Plus, early diagnosis and treatment can slow the disease’s progression, improving quality of life in old age.

What causes osteoporosis?

Back to top

Doctors and researchers are unsure of the exact cause of osteoporosis. However, most agree that the condition has to do with the body’s ability to regenerate bone. Sometime during a person’s mid-30’s, the body is unable to produce new bone as quickly as it is lost. A person’s likelihood of developing osteoporosis depends, partially, on how much bone mass they attained in youth. The higher a person’s peak bone mass, the less likely they are to have osteoporosis later in life.

There are several factors that are linked to the condition:

  • Heredity: Osteoporosis is known to run in families. It most often affects families with small, slender body builds and fair skin. If your family has a history of fractures, especially in old age, you may be predisposed to the condition. Talk to your doctor about proactive steps you can take to help slow or prevent osteoporosis.
  • Aging: This is one of the more widespread and acknowledged osteoporosis links. Bone loss is common as people age. This decreased bone mass puts individuals at a greater risk for osteoporosis, which increases the chance of debilitating bone breaks, like hip and spine fractures.
  • Nutrition and Lifestyle: Factors like poor nutrition have been linked to osteoporosis. Specifically, diets low in calcium, low body weight, and sedentary lifestyles can facilitate osteoporosis. Cigarette smoking and excessive alcohol use are also linked to osteoporosis.

Additionally, certain medical conditions, like hyperthyroidism, as well as the use of certain medications, like cortisone and injected corticosteroids, can contribute to the disease’s development.

Are there any risk factors for developing osteoporosis?

Back to top

Risk factors linked to osteoporosis range from genetic predisposition and demographic to diet and exercise frequency. Here are a few common phenomena that are risk factors for osteoporosis.

  • Family history
  • Age
  • Race
  • Sex (the condition is most common in women)
  • Menopause
  • Body frame size
  • A history of low calcium intake
  • Eating disorders
  • History of gastrointestinal surgery

Some medical conditions – including celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, lupus, kidney disease, and rheumatoid arthritis – can also increase a person’s risk of developing osteoporosis. If you are in any of these high-risk groups, ask your doctor about how you can help prevent the disease from developing.

What are osteoporosis symptoms?

Back to top

Most people will not experience osteoporosis symptoms. In many cases, the condition is caught only when a fracture occurs. However, if symptoms do appear, they may include any combination of the following:

  • Brittle, weak nails
  • Receding gums
  • Decreased or weakened grip strength

As you can see, early osteoporosis symptoms can be explained by a variety of other conditions. This makes the disease very difficult to catch in its earliest stages. However, as the condition progresses, the risk of fracture increases. Symptoms of severe osteoporosis can include back and neck pain, as well as the loss of height. At its most severe, osteoporosis can cause a fracture from something as routine as a strong cough or sneeze.

Some people who are at a high risk for developing osteoporosis may hear or be familiar with the term osteopenia. This describes the period when bone loss has begun but action is still possible to prevent osteoporosis later in life. If you have osteopenia, it is time to take medical action to slow osteoporosis onset.


What does osteoporosis pain feel like?

Back to top

A common result of osteoporosis is something called a compression fracture. This occurs when the bones in the spine (vertebrae) are weakened to the point of breaking. Often, these fractures do not require a fall or accident to occur. This is, partially, what can make them so dangerous. Symptoms of a spinal compression fracture can include:

  • Loss of height
  • A curved spine or hunched posture
  • Difficulty twisting or bending the body
  • Sudden pain that gets worse while standing but subsides while lying down

In general, pain is not a symptom of osteoporosis in the absence of fractures. That said, if you are at risk of osteoporosis and experiencing pain, schedule an appointment with your doctor. You may have a fracture.

How is osteoporosis diagnosed?

Back to top

Doctors can use a variety of tests to check for osteoporosis. At the beginning of your appointment, they will review your medical history and conduct a physical exam. In many cases, they will also run blood and urine tests to check for other conditions that may cause bone loss and similar symptoms. Then, if your doctor thinks you may have osteoporosis, they will suggest and conduct a bone density test. They will also conduct a bone density test if they suspect you are at risk for developing osteoporosis, or if they think you may have osteopenia.

A bone density test is a painless diagnostic tool that can take around 15 to 20 minutes. The test utilizes X-rays to measure the bone density in the spine, hips, and/or wrists – all areas at the greatest risk for showing osteoporosis. If the testing reveals an osteoporosis diagnosis, your doctor will prescribe a treatment plan to help strengthen bone and mitigate symptoms.

How is osteoporosis treated?

Back to top

There is no known cure for osteoporosis. As a result, most treatment options focus on mitigating symptoms and strengthening bones. In many cases, this will include lifestyle changes, like increased vitamin D and calcium intake, as well as exercising.

Your doctor will also likely prescribe certain medications and treatment aimed to prevent further bone loss. This can include any of the following:

  • Calcitonin: This is a medication used to decrease bone loss, limiting spinal fractures and offering some pain relief.
  • SERMs: Also known as Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators, these medications can increase bone mass.
  • Bisphosphonates: These medications can increase bone mass and prevent both spine and hip fractures.
  • Testosterone: In men, testosterone therapy may contribute to increased bone density.
  • Hormone Therapy: For women, estrogen can help stop bone density loss that may have begun during menopause.

Are there any ways to prevent osteoporosis?

Back to top

Most osteoporosis risk factors are outside of an individual’s control – hereditary, age, and sex, to name a few. However, some factors can be influenced by a healthy lifestyle. If you are actively trying to prevent osteoporosis, we recommend making the following lifestyle choices:

  • Stop smoking
  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption
  • Consider hormone therapy if you are at high risk for osteoporosis
  • Consume a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D

Remember that osteoporosis can have severe side effects. If you are in a high-risk category, we recommend talking to your doctor about other ways you may be able to prevent disease onset.

When should I visit my doctor for osteoporosis?

Back to top

If you are in any of the high-risk groups for osteoporosis and have recently experienced a fracture, ask your doctor about the possibility of osteoporosis. Additionally, if osteoporosis runs in your family, talk to your physician about preventative measures that may stop or slow the disease’s onset. Only a doctor can diagnose and treat this condition.

Osteoporosis is a common condition, and once diagnosed, it can be very hard to live with. However, with early detection and proactive treatment, many people with osteoporosis can live long, fulfilling lives after diagnosis.