Osteoporosis is a condition that weakens bones, increasing your risk for unexpected bone fractures, often of the hip, wrist, or spine. It affects an estimated 200 million people around the world, including 54 million individuals in the U.S. Though it isn’t curable, there are a variety of treatment options that can help protect and strengthen your bones. Read on to learn about the leading causes and treatment options of osteoporosis.
What is osteoporosis?
Your bones are constantly changing. When you’re young, new bone forms more quickly than old bone is lost, increasing your overall bone mass. This process starts to slow over time — typically beginning in your early 20s — and as you age, the reverse happens. Old bone disintegrates more quickly than new bone develops, decreasing your overall bone mass.
For those with osteoporosis, these changes are more pronounced, with lower than average bone mass and density. The inside of healthy bone resembles a honeycomb or a sponge, with many tiny holes. Osteoporosis, which means “porous bone,” gradually increases the size of these holes, lowering bone density and strength. As bones grow weak, brittle, and more porous, they become increasingly susceptible to fractures.
The condition is progressive. Without effective treatment, it may worsen, increasing your risk of a fracture. In cases of severe osteoporosis, even sneezing or minor bumps can fracture bone.
Osteoporosis is often preceded by a condition called osteopenia, which is characterized by less severe loss of bone density. Not all cases of osteopenia progress into osteoporosis, and simple lifestyle changes can help protect your bones and preserve bone mass. Regular bone density tests every two to three years are also an important component of osteoporosis prevention.
Symptoms of osteoporosis
Sometimes referred to as a silent disease, osteoporosis often presents without noticeable symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they may include the following:
- Receding gums
- Weakened grip strength
- Weak, brittle nails
- Height loss (typically an inch or more)
- Posture changes such as stooping or bending forward
- Shortness of breath
- Lower back pain
Since osteoporosis isn’t always accompanied by symptoms, it’s important to stay on track with bone density screenings as you age, especially if you are at increased risk for the condition. Many people first learn that they have osteoporosis after a fracture. If you have a family history of osteoporosis or a related health condition (see below), speak with a healthcare provider about your risk and recommended screenings.
Osteoporosis may be caused by a variety of factors, both preventable and non-preventable. Age and sex play the greatest role in the condition’s development. The condition affects women four times more often than men, and postmenopausal women have the highest risk of developing osteoporosis. This is due to how decreased estrogen levels after menopause alter the rhythm of bone remodeling, in addition to the overall aging-related loss of bone mass.
Though osteoporosis affects more women than men, everyone’s risk increases with age. Men over the age of 50 are significantly more susceptible to osteoporosis-induced bone breaks or fractures than those of a younger age.
The following factors may also contribute to the development of osteoporosis:
- Bone structure and body weight — those with less body weight don’t have as much bone to lose and face a higher risk for osteoporosis.
- Other health conditions including overactive thyroid, parathyroid, or adrenal glands; celiac disease; and inflammatory bowel disease
- Previous hormone treatment, including for breast or prostate cancer or an irregular menstrual cycle
- Previous bariatric surgery or organ transplant
- A family history of osteoporosis
- Lifestyle factors including a history of smoking, alcohol use, a sedentary lifestyle, or calcium or vitamin D insufficiency
Bone density testing
Bone mineral density (BMD) tests — also known as dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA or DXA) scans — are used to identify bone health issues in advance as well as to diagnose osteoporosis.
A DEXA scan uses small amounts of radiation to assess the solidity of spine, hip, and wrist bones. Regular X-rays can only detect osteoporosis in more advanced stages.
This screening is recommended for all women over the age of 65 and all men over the age of 70, regardless of other risk factors. It may be recommended for postmenopausal women and men between 50-70 years old if other risk factors are present. Consult with your doctor about your preventative health needs and recommended screenings.
Living with osteoporosis
Treatment for osteoporosis varies by individual. Your doctor will make tailored recommendations about medications, diet, and exercise based on your needs. A treatment plan may include the following components.
Oral and injectable bisphosphonates, which prevent the loss of bone mass, are commonly prescribed for osteoporosis. Examples include:
- Alendronate (Fosamax®, Binosto®)
- Ibandronate (Boniva®)
- Risedronate (Actonel®, Atelvia®)
- Zoledronic acid (Reclast®)
Hormone therapy including estrogen and testosterone can also stop bone density loss. Estrogen has been associated with an increased risk for blood clots, certain cancers, and heart disease, and is typically reserved for younger women or women with menopause symptoms.
A medication called raloxifene (Evista®) offers similar benefits as estrogen therapy, but without many of the above risks. However, it is also associated with a higher risk of blood clots.
Three anabolic agents — romososumab-aqqg (Evenity®), teriparatide (Forteo®), and abaloparatide (Tymlos®) — are FDA-approved to treat osteoporosis. These medications support new bone formation and are administered as injections.
A biologic called denosumab (Prolia®) may be prescribed if other treatments aren’t effective. It is administered as an injection every six months.
There’s anecdotal evidence that some supplements can support bone health, however, research is still evolving, and few studies formally support the effectiveness of supplements. Speak with your doctor before taking supplements, as they may cause side effects or interact with other medications.
Nutrition significantly affects bone strength and health. Calcium and vitamin D are the two most important nutrients for managing osteoporosis. Calcium helps maintain strong bones and vitamin D allows your body to absorb calcium.
Nutritious sources of calcium include low-fat dairy products and dark green leafy vegetables. Vitamin D can be found in trout, salmon, and vitamin D-fortified milk and cereal. Some individuals get some of their vitamin D from sunlight, though this depends on your location and exposure to sunlight.
The recommended daily intakes for calcium and vitamin D vary by individual. General guidelines are below, but always check with your provider about your recommended intake.
- Women with postmenopausal osteoporosis: 1200 mg of calcium and 800 international units of vitamin D
- Women with premenopausal osteoporosis or men with osteoporosis: 1000 mg of calcium and 600 international units of vitamin D
Some evidence suggests that excess calcium consumption may cause kidney stones, calcium accumulation in blood vessels, and constipation. Always consult with your healthcare provider before taking supplements.
Other nutrients that promote bone health include:
- Magnesium - found in whole grains and dark green leafy vegetables
- Vitamin K - found in dark green leafy vegetables and canola oil
- Zinc - found in whole grains, poultry, and nuts
Exercise is also part of living with osteoporosis. While certain types of exercise should be avoided given the risk for injuries, others offer many benefits for those with the condition.
Weight-bearing aerobic activities — performed on your feet — strengthen bones in your legs, hips, and lower spine. This includes walking, dancing, and low-impact aerobics.
It’s important to maintain good stability and balance. Try simple balancing exercises like standing on one leg or movement-based stability exercises, such as tai chi.
Unless otherwise informed by your doctor, avoid high-impact exercises and activities that involve frequent bending or twisting, as they may increase your risk of fractures. Always check with your doctor about which exercises are appropriate for you.
Take precautions to prevent falls both inside and outside of your home. You may wish to consult with your provider about whether or not they recommend an assistive device to improve balance and increase mobility.
Use the tips below as a starting point to prevent indoor and outdoor falls.
- Keep floors free of clutter
- Make sure lighting is sufficient
- Clean up spills promptly
- Avoid cleaning products that leave the floor slippery
- Keep the area surrounding your house or apartment in good condition and free of clutter
- Make sure lighting is sufficient
- Wear non-slip shoes
The Bone Health & Osteoporosis Foundation (BHOF) and American Bone Health offer support and community for individuals living with osteoporosis.
Your partner in health
Life with osteoporosis is easier with a reliable pharmacy partner by your side. Our pharmacists can answer any questions you may have, from medication side effects to navigating lifestyle changes. In addition, we offer free, same-day delivery and medication management tools like reminders and auto refills in our app to make it as simple as possible to stay on track with your treatment.
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This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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