Osteoporosis is the thinning of
bone tissue and loss of bone density over time.
Osteoporosis is the most common
type of bone disease.
Researchers estimate that about 1 out of 5 American women over the age of 50
have osteoporosis. About half of all women over the age of 50 will have a
fracture of the hip, wrist, or vertebra (bones of the spine).
Osteoporosis occurs when the body fails to form enough new bone, when too
much old bone is reabsorbed by the body, or both.
Calcium and phosphate are two minerals that are essential for normal bone
formation. Throughout youth, your body uses these minerals to produce bones.
If you do not get enough calcium, or if your body does not absorb enough
calcium from the diet, bone production and bone tissues may suffer.
As you age, calcium and phosphate may be reabsorbed back into the body from
the bones, which makes the bone tissue weaker. This can result in brittle,
fragile bones that are more prone to fractures, even without injury.
Usually, the loss occurs gradually over years. Many times, a person will
have a fracture before becoming aware that the disease is present. By the
time a fracture occurs, the disease is in its advanced stages and damage is
The leading causes of osteoporosis are a drop in estrogen in women at the
time of menopause and a drop in testosterone in men. Women over age 50 and
men over age 70 have a higher risk for osteoporosis.
Other causes include:
1. Being confined to a bed
2. Chronic rheumatoid arthritis, chronic kidney disease, eating disorders
3. Taking corticosteroid medications (prednisone, methylprednisolone) every
day for more than 3 months, or taking some antiseizure drugs
White women, especially those with
a family history of osteoporosis, have a greater than average risk of
developing osteoporosis. Other risk factors include:
1. Absence of menstrual periods (amenorrhea) for long periods of time
2. Drinking a large amount of alcohol
3. Family history of osteoporosis
4. History of hormone treatment for prostate cancer or breast cancer
5. Low body weight
7. Too little calcium in the diet
There are no symptoms in the early
stages of the disease.
Symptoms occurring late in the disease include:
1. Bone pain or tenderness
2. Fractures with little or no trauma
3. Loss of height (as much as 6 inches) over time
4. Low back pain due to fractures of the spinal bones
5. Neck pain due to fractures of the spinal bones
6. Stooped posture or kyphosis, also called a "dowager's hump"
Exams and Tests
Bone mineral density testing
(specifically a densitometry or DEXA scan) measures how much bone you have.
Your health care provider uses this test to predict your risk for bone
fractures in the future. For information about when testing should be done.
A special type of spine CT that can show loss of bone mineral density,
quantitative computed tomography (QCT), may be used in rare cases.
In severe cases, a spine or hip x-ray may show fracture or collapse of the
spinal bones. However, simple x-rays of bones are not very accurate in
predicting whether someone is likely to have osteoporosis.
You may need other blood and urine tests if your osteoporosis is thought to
be due to a medical condition, rather than simply the usual bone loss seen
with older age.
The goals of osteoporosis treatment
1. Control pain from the disease
2. Slow down or stop bone loss
3. Prevent bone fractures with medicines that strengthen bone
4. Minimize the risk of falls that might cause fractures
There are several different
treatments for osteoporosis, including lifestyle changes and a variety of
Medications are used to strengthen bones when:
1. Osteoporosis has been diagnosed by a bone density study.
2. Osteopenia (thin bones, but not osteoporosis) has been diagnosed by a
bone density study, if a bone fracture has occurred.
Bisphosphonates are the primary drugs used to both prevent and treat
osteoporosis in postmenopausal women.
1. Bisphosphonates taken by mouth include alendronate (Fosamax), ibandronate
(Boniva), and risedronate (Actonel). Most are taken by mouth, usually once a
week or once a month.
2. Bisphosphonates given through a vein (intravenously) are taken less
Calcitonin is a medicine that slows the rate of bone loss and relieves bone
pain. It comes as a nasal spray or injection. The main side effects are
nasal irritation from the spray form and nausea from the injectable form.
Calcitonin appears to be less effective than bisphosphonates.
HORMONE REPLACEMENT THERAPY
Estrogens or hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is rarely used anymore to
prevent osteoporosis and are not approved to treat a woman who has already
been diagnosed with the condition.
Sometimes, if estrogen has helped a woman, and she cannot take other options
for preventing or treating osteoporosis, the doctor may recommend that she
continue using hormone therapy. If you are considering taking hormone
therapy to prevent osteoporosis, discuss the risks with your doctor.
Teriparatide (Forteo) is approved for the treatment of postmenopausal women
who have severe osteoporosis and are considered at high risk for fractures.
The medicine is given through daily shots underneath the skin. You can give
yourself the shots at home.
Raloxifene (Evista) is used for the prevention and treatment of
osteoporosis. Raloxifene is similar to the breast cancer drug tamoxifen.
Raloxifene can reduce the risk of spinal fractures by almost 50%. However,
it does not appear to prevent other fractures, including those in the hip.
It may have protective effects against heart disease and breast cancer,
though more studies are needed.
The most serious side effect of raloxifene is a very small risk of blood
clots in the leg veins (deep venous thrombosis) or in the lungs (pulmonary
Regular exercise can reduce the likelihood of bone fractures in people with
osteoporosis. Some of the recommended exercises include:
1. Weight-bearing exercises -- walking, jogging, playing tennis, dancing
2. Resistance exercises -- free weights, weight machines, stretch bands
3. Balance exercises -- tai chi, yoga
4. Riding a stationary bicycle
5. Using rowing machines
Avoid any exercise that presents a
risk of falling, or high-impact exercises that may cause fractures.
Get at least 1,200 milligrams per day of calcium and 800 - 1,000
international units of vitamin D3. Vitamin D helps your body absorb
calcium.Your doctor may recommend a supplement to give you the calcium and
vitamin D you need.
Follow a diet that provides the proper amount of calcium, vitamin D, and
protein. While this will not completely stop bone loss, it will guarantee
that a supply of the materials the body uses to form and maintain bones is
High-calcium foods include:
2. Ice cream
3. Leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and collard greens
4. Low-fat milk
6. Sardines (with the bones)
STOP UNHEALTHY HABITS
Quit smoking, if you smoke. Also limit alcohol intake. Too much alcohol can
damage your bones, as well as put you at risk for falling and breaking a
It is critical to prevent falls. Avoid sedating medications and remove
household hazards to reduce the risk of fractures. Make sure your vision is
good. Other ways to prevent falling include:
1. Avoiding walking alone on icy days
2. Using bars in the bathtub, when needed
3. Wearing well-fitting shoes
Your response to treatment can be monitored with a series of bone mineral
density measurements taken every 1 - 2 years.
Women taking estrogen should have routine mammograms, pelvic exams, and Pap
There are no surgeries for treating osteoporosis itself. However, a
procedure called vertebroplasty can be used to treat any small fractures in
your spinal column due to osteoporosis. It can also help prevent weak
vertebrae from becoming fractured by strengthening the bones in your spinal
The procedure involves injecting a fast-hardening glue into the areas that
are fractured or weak. A similar procedure, called kyphoplasty, uses
balloons to widen the spaces that need the glue. (The balloons are removed
during the procedure.)
Medications to treat osteoporosis
can help prevent fractures, but vertebrae that have already collapsed cannot
Some persons with osteoporosis become severely disabled as a result of
weakened bones. Hip fractures leave about half of patients unable to walk
independently. This is one of the major reasons people are admitted to
Although osteoporosis is debilitating, it does not affect life expectancy.
1. Compression fractures of the
2. Disability caused by severely weakened bones
3. Hip and wrist fractures
4. Loss of ability to walk due to hip fractures
When to Contact a
Call your health care provider if
you have symptoms of osteoporosis or if you wish to be screened for the
Calcium is essential for building
and maintaining healthy bone. Vitamin D is also needed because it helps your
body absorb calcium. Following a healthy, well-balanced diet can help you
get these and other important nutrients throughout life.
Other tips for prevention:
1. Avoid drinking excess alcohol
2. Don't smoke
3. Get regular exercise
A number of medications are
approved for the prevention of osteoporosis.
Cranney A, Papaioannou A, Zytaruk
N, et al., Clinical Guidelines Committee of Osteoporosis Canada. Parathyroid
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Estrogen and progestogen use in postmenopausal women: July 2008 position
statement of The North American Menopause Society. Menopause.
Management of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women: 2006 position statement
of The North American Menopause Society. Menopause. 2006;13(3):340-367.
National Osteoporosis Foundation. Clinician's Guide to Prevention and
Treatment of Osteoporosis. Accessed July 23, 2008.