Osteoporosis is a bone disease that causes upper and lower back pain, impaired mobility and an elevated risk of fracture. As the disease becomes more advanced, it can cause patients to develop muscle weakness in addition to poorer posture, often times in the appearance of a hunched back. Although the condition is most common among postmenopausal women, it can affect anyone at any age. Over time, both male and female osteoporosis patients may lose up to several inches of height.
What Is It?
The primary cause of osteoporosis is a decrease in bone density. Literally, the word "osteoporosis" translates to "porous bones." As bones become less dense, their protein and mineral composition changes into a form with diminished strength, stability and endurance. As a result, otherwise-minor injuries can cause significant and long-term damage. Imagine a slight fall from accidentally tripping over a step. While a normal person might suffer a minor bruise or scrape, someone with osteoporosis might actually fracture a bone.
Symptoms & Warning Signs
At the earliest stages, osteoporosis causes no symptoms. As the condition advances, patients may begin to develop bone sensitivity, muscle weakness, and pain throughout the back in the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar regions.
As the bones become more porous, they will become weaker and may fracture more easily, even without trauma or injury. Over time, osteoporosis sufferers may lose several inches of height or develop a hunched posture, which is known as a "dowager's hump."
Many osteoporosis patients experience weakness, body aches, and a diminished quality of life. In many situations, depression can develop as a symptom has people learn to cope with the condition.
Causes & Risk Factors
Doctors divide risk factors for osteoporosis into two categories: modifiable and non-modifiable.
- Modifiable risk factors include diet and lifestyle choices such as alcohol consumption, vitamin D deficiency, a high protein diet, tobacco, poor nutrition and caffeine intake.
- Non-modifiable risk factors include estrogen deficiency and a decrease in testosterone levels, which both occur during menopause.
Other causes include:
- Being bed-ridden
- Eating disorders
- Chronic rheumatoid arthritis
- Chronic kidney disease
- Lacking adequate vitamin D intake
Risk factors for osteoporosis include:
- Aging (osteoporosis is prevalent among seniors)
- Being too small or thin
- Being underweight
- Having a family history of osteoporosis
- Excessive alcohol consumption (alcoholism)
- Inadequate calcium intake
Prevention & Treatment
The first level of prevention and treatment involves basic lifestyle adjustments. An osteoporosis patient will likely need to learn how to work within his or her physical limitations to remain comfortable and safe. Along these lines, it may be necessary to work with a physical or occupational therapist to strengthen muscles, prevent falls, manage pain and minimize risk of experiencing an injury.
A physical therapist may walk patients through exercises that they will need to practice on their own. Ultimately, the goal of physical therapy is to decrease the risk of activities that may cause harm. It may be necessary to avoid certain high or low-impact activities altogether. By taking adequate precautions, many osteoporosis patients are able to maintain a high quality of life.
A doctor or orthopedic specialist may also recommend medications to help keep pain under control. Osteoporosis patients may need to take medication on a regular or as-needed basis. Routines for pain medication vary between patients, so it is important to work with a doctor when planning dosage instructions.
Doctors may also prescribe medications to control bone density loss. These medications may slow down bone loss or prevent fractures by strengthening the bones. A combination of medications may be necessary.
Other treatments include hormone replacement therapy, hormone injections and exercise routines. If you suspect that you have osteoporosis, it is important to consult a doctor before beginning any treatment. Otherwise, you may risk injuring yourself.
A person’s diet is also important for treatment and prevention of osteoporosis. According to the National Institutes of Health, a person should be getting at least 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day, and 800 to 1,000 international units of vitamin D3. Vitamin D intake is important because it allows the body to absorb calcium for stronger bones. If an adequate amount of these two nutrients cannot be consumed from foods alone, your doctor may recommend dietary supplements.
Unhealthy habits that increase a person’s risk of osteoporosis should also be reduced. Smokers should quit immediately, and the consumption of alcohol should be limited. These unhealthy habits can damage or weaken bones.
Tests & Diagnosis
Doctors typically diagnose osteoporosis by examining a person’s bone density to determine how strong or fragile the bones are. A common test used in diagnosing osteoporosis is a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, also known as DXA. The procedure will measure a person’s bone density around the spine, hip and wrists, which are areas of the body that are most likely to become affected by osteoporosis.