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Osteoporosis occurs when there is low bone mass and bone-tissue deterioration. While there is no cure for the disease, there are treatments to help protect your bones and manage your pain.
Meaning “porous bone,” osteoporosis causes holes in the bone that are much bigger than the natural holes found in healthy bone. These larger holes cause the bone to be less dense, making it more likely to break.
Causes and Risk Factors of Osteoporosis
The less dense your bones are in your youth, the more likely bone density will diminish as you age, causing osteoporosis. Other causes of osteoporosis include the following:
- Health conditions: Certain health conditions, including some autoimmune disorders, blood disorders, or digestive disorders, may cause osteoporosis. Breast cancer and prostate cancer may increase the likelihood of developing it.
- Medications: Certain medications may cause osteoporosis. Talking to your healthcare provider about how your medications may affect your bone health is important.
Several risk factors may increase your likelihood of developing osteoporosis. These include the following:
- Age: Bone loss happens as you age, which naturally weakens your bones.
- Body Type: A small frame and low body weight increase your likelihood.
- Diet and lifestyle: If your diet is low in calcium, vitamin D, and protein, your bones may be weak, which can lead to fractures. Low or no physical activity can also put you at risk.
- Gender: Women are more likely than men to develop osteoporosis, especially after menopause.
- Hormonal changes: Decreased levels of estrogen and testosterone are both associated with osteoporosis risk. It’s important to note that medical conditions that cause low testosterone put men at more of a risk as opposed to the normal testosterone loss that comes with aging.
- Race: You have a higher risk of osteoporosis if you are white or of Asian descent.
Symptoms of Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is sometimes considered a “silent disease,” as the early stages typically don’t cause symptoms. However, as the disease progresses, these symptoms may be present:
- Back pain
- Bone fractures, especially during minor falls or day-to-day movements like lifting, bending over, or sneezing
- Loss of height
- Stooped or hunched posture
Diagnosis of Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is typically found during a screening. Your doctor might take the following steps to make a diagnosis:
- DEXA bone-density scan: The dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan is used to measure bone-mineral density. The test requires you to lie on a table as the scanner passes over you. If your bone density is below average, your doctor may diagnose you with osteoporosis. It is recommended for women older than 65 years old or who have other risk factors.
- Medical history: Discuss with your doctor your lifestyle habits, medical conditions, medications, family history, and menstrual history to help them get a better picture of your risk factors.
- Physical exam: Your doctor may evaluate changes in your height, weight, posture, the way you walk, and your strength.
Treatment of Osteoporosis
The goal of osteoporosis treatment is to protect your bones and prevent fractures. The bone-density test (DEXA scan) will help your doctor evaluate your risk and determine the treatment that works best for you.
Most commonly, treatment for osteoporosis involves lifestyle changes and medication.
After speaking with your doctor about your lifestyle, he or she might recommend one or more of the following:
- Exercise: For older adults with osteoporosis, regular exercise can help improve balance, which is important for preventing falls. Your physician will work with you to identify exercises that will help you build muscle without putting stress on your bones.
- Lifestyle changes: If you smoke, your physician will direct you to quit, as smoking accelerates bone loss. Alcoholic beverages can also interfere with bone growth, and intoxication can disrupt your balance, making falls more likely.
- Nutrition and dietary changes: A diet rich in calcium and vitamin D will protect your bones. Calcium promotes bone strength, and vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium.
There is a range of medications available to treat osteoporosis, and your doctor will determine which might be best for you, depending on the cause and severity of your condition. The commonly prescribed drugs are the following:
- Bisphosphonates: The most prescribed drug, bisphosphonates help prevent bone loss.
- Hormone therapy: Estrogen may be used to promote bone health in women, and testosterone-replacement therapy can help improve osteoporosis symptoms.
- Monoclonal antibody medications: This medication, typically given as a shot, increases bone density.