Back to articles

Keeping Osteoporosis at Bay

News We usually don’t pay much attention to our bones. We can’t see them, and they don’t require any particular maintenance; we just assume they’re going to do their job. They’re always there, and they don’t cause any trouble unless we do something to break one of them.

The reality is that bones are living tissue, just like most of the rest of the tissue that makes up our bodies. They have a blood supply, and they grow and change throughout our lifetime. Unfortunately, that change sometimes includes a loss of bone density, resulting in conditions known as osteopenia and osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis is a condition in which the density of bone—the amount of tissue inside the bone—decreases, often to a degree that puts a person at risk for potentially life-changing fractures. In fact, osteoporosis is often not detected until a person has a bone fracture.

Osteopenia is a less-advanced form of osteoporosis. Although the bone loss not as significant as it is in osteoporosis, osteopenia is still serious and requires attention to keep from developing into osteoporosis.

Most of the time, the onset of osteoporosis is related to aging, and it tends to occur earlier in women than in men. For that reason, all women over age 65 and all men over age 75 should be screened for the condition.

However, there are other factors that can contribute to osteoporosis, including genetics, chronic steroid use, tobacco use, certain types of cancer and a history of fragility fractures—falls from a standing height or less that result in a fracture. (The body should be able to withstand a fall like this without a fracture, so if there is one, there should be further investigation into the health of the bones.)

If you have any of these risk factors, it’s a good idea to consider being screened earlier than the previously mentioned guidelines.

It’s important to note that, particularly if you’re being treated for other medical problems, your primary care physician may not be focused on osteoporosis screening. If you’re concerned about developing osteoporosis, bring the issue up to your doctor. You may want to schedule an appointment specifically to discuss this issue.

Typically, your doctor will first make sure your levels of calcium and Vitamin D are in the normal range. He or she may also refer you for a DEXA scan. This is a simple test that measures your current bone density. Based on the results of those tests, your doctor may order additional tests or may give your bones a clean bill of health.

If osteopenia or osteoporosis is discovered, your doctor will likely prescribe medication(s) that can help to halt the progress of the condition. While a diagnosis of osteoporosis doesn’t carry the same emotional weight as a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease, it is something to take very seriously. If the condition is untreated—or if you don’t carefully follow your treatment instructions—you are at significant risk for further fractures, which can cause your health and quality of life to quickly spiral downward.

The hip, spine or wrist are the most common locations for osteoporosis-related fractures; however, they can happen just about anywhere. In addition to other forms of treatment, there are some excellent surgical options that can help to restore use of the fractured bone.

Hips, for instance, can be treated with the insertion of a rod or with a hip replacement. Metal plates can repair fractured wrists and shoulders. For compression of the spine—including the thoracic and lumbar sections of the spine—there is fusion surgery and kyphoplasty, a procedure in which a special type of cement is inserted in the spine to decrease pain and help to restore the natural position of the back.

With medication, medical procedures (when needed) diet and exercise, the impact of osteoporosis on your life can be kept to a minimum. There are some good online resources that will help you prevent osteoporosis and provide support if you are diagnosed with the condition.

One such site is the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Among its many resources is a new app called Food4Bones, which can help you understand and manage your nutritional requirements if you have osteoporosis or are at risk for developing the condition.

Alen Nourian, MD, is a member of Ventura Orthopedics Medical Group, where he specializes in the management of spinal disorders and practices general orthopedics. He is also on the medical staff at Simi Valley Hospital.