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Osteoporosis Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Osteoporosis is a bone disease when bones lose density. It can cause changes to their structure and strength. This decrease in bone strength increases your risk of having a hip, wrist, or spine fracture.

It's most common in older women but can also affect men and younger women.

Osteoporosis treatment may include lifestyle changes and medicine.

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What Is Osteoporosis?

Doctors define osteoporosis as a bone disease that occurs when the mineral density in your bones decreases.

Here's how it happens.

After you become an adult, your body removes old, damaged bone and replaces it with new bone tissue. When your body doesn't make new bone tissue fast enough to replace the old tissue, it leads to bone loss.

That bone loss means weaker, more brittle bones, which in turn increases the risk of fractures.

When you have osteoporosis, you're more prone to fractures from accidents that wouldn't cause harm to healthy bones.

How common is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is common.

  • Around 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, and about 80% of those are women.
  • About one in two women and one in four men 50+ will suffer a fracture from osteoporosis in their lifetime.

Older women are more likely to get osteoporosis because they often:

  • Have smaller, thinner bones than men.
  • Live longer than men.
  • Lose bone mass after menopause due to low estrogen levels.

Younger women and men can also get osteoporosis. You're at greater risk if you aren't active and have a poor diet.

What causes osteoporosis?

The causes of osteoporosis include:

  • Aging. After age 50, your body doesn't form new bone tissue at the same pace it removes old bone tissue.
  • Genetics. If osteoporosis runs in your family, you're more likely to have it.
  • Hormone changes. Sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone) help build bones. When these levels drop, both men and women can lose bone density.
  • Lack of calcium in your diet. This can lead to bone loss, as your body will take the calcium it needs from your bones.

What are the risk factors and complications of osteoporosis?

It's vital to be aware of the risk factors of osteoporosis, and the serious issues it can lead to.

Osteoporosis risk factors

  • Being post-menopausal.
  • Being White or Asian.
  • Drinking too much alcohol.
  • Having a family history of the bone disease.
  • Having a thin, small frame.
  • Having an eating disorder.
  • Being inactive.
  • Not getting enough calcium and vitamin D.
  • Smoking.
  • Suffering from amenorrhea (not having a period for at least three months in a row).
  • Taking certain long-term medicines. Some steroids and drugs that treat cancer, diabetes, and depression can put you at risk for bone loss.

Complications of osteoporosis

The main complication of osteoporosis is the risk of broken bones. If you break a hip or wrist, you might become disabled or need surgery.

Osteoporosis can also lead to spine fractures, which can cause severe back pain, deformity, and a loss of height.

How can I reduce my risk of osteoporosis?

You may not be able to fully prevent getting osteoporosis, but healthy habits can reduce your risk. The sooner you start building good bone health, the better.

Here are a few ways to slow down bone loss:

  • Eat a diet high in calcium and vitamin D, or take supplements as needed. (Ask your doctor before starting any supplements.)
  • Only drink alcohol within limits. For women, that's one alcoholic drink per day.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Stay active. Healthy bones need weight-bearing activities like walking, jogging, yoga, gardening, lifting weights, or dancing.
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Osteoporosis Symptoms and Diagnosis

What are the signs and symptoms of osteoporosis?

Doctors sometimes call osteoporosis a “silent disease" because you may have bone loss for years without osteoporosis symptoms. For many people, a broken bone is the first sign of osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis symptoms may include:

  • Back pain.
  • Fractures from minor falls.
  • Fractures from normal movements like lifting, bending, or coughing.
  • Fractures that occur in the hip, spine, and wrist.
  • Loss of height.
  • Stooped posture (sometimes referred to as a “dowager's hump").

How do you diagnose osteoporosis?

To diagnose osteoporosis, your doctor may:

  • Do a physical exam. Your doctor will check for muscle strength, loss of height, and changes in posture, balance, and gait. They'll also review what medicines and supplements you take.
  • Take your health history. Your doctor will ask about your lifestyle habits and family history of osteoporosis or hip fractures. They'll also ask about recent falls, balance issues, or past fractures.
  • Run blood and urine tests. These tests may show issues that add to bone loss, like thyroid disorders or a lack of vitamin D.
  • Check your bone density. The bone densitometry (DXA) scan measures the amount of calcium and other minerals in your bones. The lower your bone density, the greater your risk of fractures.
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What Are the Treatment Options for Osteoporosis?

UPMC experts diagnose and treat osteoporosis in men and women.

We use the latest technology to measure bone density.

We also offer routine follow-ups to check how well osteoporosis treatment is working. And we can help you reduce the risks of this bone disease.

Lifestyle changes to treat osteoporosis

Your doctor may suggest:

  • Changes in your diet, to make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D each day.
  • Cutting back (or quitting) smoking and drinking alcohol. Both can harm your bones.
  • Doing weight-bearing exercise. Yoga, strength training, and walking can strengthen your bones.
  • Making your home safer to prevent falls. You should keep rooms free of clutter, use carpet runners on slick floors, and keep stairways well-lit. You may want to install grab bars near the tub, shower, or toilet.

Medicine to treat osteoporosis

Your doctor may also suggest medicine(s) to slow down bone loss.

The most common are:

  • Bisphosphonates. An oral or intravenous drug that prevents bone loss.
  • Denosumab. A shot that hinders bone loss.
  • Parathyroid hormone analogs. Hormone shots that help build new bone.
  • Raloxifene. An oral drug that slows down bone loss after menopause.
  • Romosozumab. A shot that builds new bone and prevents bone loss.

Your doctor will discuss the risks and benefits of any medicine based on your unique needs.

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