What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a health condition that affects your bones, making them very weak and brittle. This means they can easily break, and even minor things – like coughing or sneezing – can cause a fracture.
Osteopenia is the name for the stage before osteoporosis, when you have lower than average bone density. It doesn’t always develop into osteoporosis. A doctor can offer advice on keeping your bones healthy and may prescribe bone-strengthening treatment to help prevent the onset of osteoporosis.
What causes osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is caused by losing bone much faster than normal. Everyone loses bone as they age, but when this process happens faster than it should, it can lead to weak, brittle bones that easily break.
This tends to affect women more than men as they age and it’s common for women to lose bone rapidly for a few years after they’ve been through menopause.
It’s not just age that affects bone loss. Other factors that can put you at a higher risk of osteoporosis include:
- Ongoing use of high-dose steroids
- A family history of osteoporosis
- Certain health conditions, like inflammatory bowel disease, cancer and kidney or liver disease
- An imbalance of hormone levels, due to things like taking specific medication or having thyroid problems
- Having a small body frame size
- Being very underweight or having an eating disorder
- Low calcium levels
- Having a sedentary lifestyle and not doing enough weight-bearing activity, like walking, running, dancing etc
- Drinking too much alcohol or smoking
Osteoporosis doesn’t cause any obvious symptoms in its early stages, but as it develops, it can lead to:
- A stooped posture
- Back pain
- Losing height
- Bones that break easily
If the doctor thinks you have osteoporosis, they can measure your bone strength with a bone density scan. This is a scan that uses low-dose X-rays to assess the strength of your bones. It’s quick and painless, and more effective than normal X-rays for looking at bone density.
The treatment for osteoporosis depends on factors including your age and gender and your risk of breaking a bone. If these factors are all low, you may not need any treatment.
Medical treatment aims to strengthen bones and prevent fractures. Options include:
- Bisphosphonates – A group of medicines that slow down or prevent bone loss and strengthen bones
- Selective oestrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) – Medicines that help to maintain bone density and reduce the risk of breaks, especially of the spine
- Parathyroid hormone treatments – Parathyroid is the natural hormone that helps to regulate the amount of calcium in your bones. Parathyroid hormone treatments can help to increase bone density and are given by injection
- Calcium and vitamin D supplements – Calcium plays an important part in keeping bones healthy, and vitamin D helps your body to absorb calcium. The doctor may recommend supplements if you aren’t getting enough of these naturally, through your diet and sunlight
Self-care and prevention
There’s lots you can do to help to prevent falls and reduce the risk of breaking bones. For example:
- Asses your home for trip hazards, like loose cables or wires, rugs, and carpets that you could trip over, and make these areas safer
- Use rubber mats in the bathroom
- Ensure there’s good lighting throughout your home
- Keep all the things you use most often at an easy-to-reach height to avoid having to bend or stretch too often
- Wear rubber soled slippers in the house
- Get your eyesight and hearing regularly checked
- Stay active - Exercise regularly, especially weight-bearing activities like walking and dancing. You can also do specific exercises to improve your strength and balance
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet
- Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont
Lead GP at Livi
- Last updated: