Osteoporosis Basics

What is osteoporosis?

If you thought that shrinking and stooped shoulders were an inevitable part of your golden years, there’s good news. As it turns out, those phenomena are due to a bone disease called osteoporosis — and it’s largely preventable.

Osteoporosis is a thinning and weakening of the bones that strikes many women after menopause, as well as some older men. The disease makes your bones much more likely to break or fracture if you fall down or suffer an injury which otherwise would have been minor. An estimated 2 million fractures a year — primarily of the hip, spine (vertebrae) and wrist occur in people with osteoporosis.

According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, around 10 million Americans have osteoporosis and another 34 million are estimated to have low enough bone mass that they’re at risk for the disease. For women, the disease usually begins to set in after menopause when estrogen production slows. Studies have shown that slender women as well as white and Asian women are at greater risk than others.

What causes it?

Your body has been breaking down and building up bone mass throughout your life. In this process of regeneration, your body creates a “new” skeleton every five years. As you get older, the building-up part of the process slows down, and after your mid-thirties it becomes easier to lose bone than to build it. Sometime in your 40s or 50s, you gradually start to lose more bone mass than your body produces. This is especially true if your body lacks enough calcium, Vitamin D, and sex hormones like estrogen, all necessary in the making of bones.

“Osteoporosis” means “porous bones” in Latin, so named because the loss of mass makes your bones porous, brittle, fragile, and less dense.

What are the symptoms?

Even though osteoporosis is more common than breast cancer among American women, many people won’t discover they have it until they take a small tumble in their living room and end up breaking a hip, or until they try to lift something heavy and fracture a vertebra. Breaks and fractures of the hip, spine, and wrists are the most common symptom of the disease, though they can occur in any bone.

Hip fractures are the most serious since they tend to heal slowly, cause severe physical pain, and result in long-lasting or permanent disability. While recovering, people may also fall prey to blood clots or pneumonia, and many older people also suffer psychologically due to the accompanying loss of independence.

Losing your height is one of the earliest signs of osteoporosis, though you may not even notice it at first. This shrinkage is caused by tiny (usually painless and undetected) fractures in the vertebrae. Extreme fractures may cause back pain and even kyphosis, the curvature of the spine that results in a stooped or “hump” back.

If I have shrunk a little, does it mean I have osteoporosis?

No, not necessarily. The discs between your vertebrae naturally shrink as you get older, so some height loss (about a half inch to one inch) is normal. If you’ve lost more than an inch, however, the culprit is probably osteoporosis and you should ask your doctor about getting a bone mineral density (BMD) test.

Is back pain one of the symptoms?

Sometimes. Back pain is often caused by some sort of muscle strain or arthritis. Osteoporosis, however, can cause vertebral fractures in the lower back that sometimes produce acute pain, typically lasting about a week, or a longer-lasting dull lower back pain.

What puts me at risk for osteoporosis?

According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), women are considered at high risk for the disease if they have low body weight, low calcium or vitamin D intake, poor health, a sedentary lifestyle, or a family history of osteoporosis or broken bones.

Alcohol abuse, smoking, and high caffeine intake are also thought to significantly increase the risk of osteoporosis. Women who have had amenorrhea (absence of menstrual periods) and/or undergo early menopause can also be at higher risk, due to insufficient estrogen. Caucasian women and women of Asian or Latino descent are more likely to develop osteoporosis than women of African descent.

People who suffer from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that is most often found in young women, are at increased risk of osteoporosis due to low levels of estrogen (resulting from amenorrhea) and poor nutrition. Some young female athletes who exercise to excess and eat very little in order to keep their weight at a competitive level may develop Female Athlete Triad – a condition first recognized by the American College of Sports Medicine in the early 1990’s. Female Athlete Triad is characterized by missing periods, disordered eating, and bone thinning.

Risk factors associated with osteoporosis in men include low testosterone levels and prolonged exposure to steroid medications. Diseases that prevent the body’s ability to absorb calcium, like kidney or thyroid gland diseases (hyperthyroidism), can also lead to osteoporosis. Like women, men are more likely to have osteoporosis if they smoke, drink excessive amounts of alcohol, do not get enough calcium, have a sedentary lifestyle, and are older. Of all men, white men are at greatest risk for the disease.

How is osteoporosis diagnosed?

By a bone mineral density test, which will also tell your doctor how advanced the disease is. In the past doctors used regular X-rays to look for osteoporosis, but they could pick up changes only after a 25 to 40 percent drop in bone density — by which time the disease is already far advanced. But today machines that expose you to only one fiftieth the radiation you’d get in a chest X-ray, can detect as little as a one percent bone loss.

The most accurate test for osteoporosis is called the dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA), which measures bone density in your spine and hip. The procedure can be expensive (up to $150) but is covered by Medicare and many insurance companies if certain criteria are met — that is, if you’re considered at high risk for osteoporosis. The DXA test will produce a “T-score” for your bones: +1 to -1 is normal; -1 to -2.5 is considered low bone density (osteopenia); and below -2.5 is regarded as osteoporosis.

In addition to the DXA, your healthcare provider can now measure your absolute fracture risk to help you make better decisions about whether medications are needed. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends treatment for postmenopausal women and men age 50 and older with a T-score of -1 to -2.5 or below, who also have a fracture probability of 20 percent or greater (3 percent or greater for a hip fracture).

Are there more inexpensive tests?

Yes. Peripheral bone mineral density tests (pDXAs) are sometimes used as a screening device, but they do not accurately diagnose osteoporosis. These tests measure bone density in the forearm, finger, wrist and sometimes the heel of the foot. This and other tests that measure bone density in the extremities are less expensive than the DXA, but they are also less accurate. They may not give the best indication of fracture risk at the hip and other sites, for example, so it’s possible that you might get a false sense of security from a good reading.

In addition, heel ultrasounds, sometimes available in pharmacies, will not work for men because they don’t use a male database. A man’s score would be compared to a reference population consisting of women, so according to the Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter, the measurement would be worthless. Because the less expensive tests may not give an accurate picture of overall bone density in men or women, your health provider is likely to recommend the DXA, which is considered the gold standard of osteoporosis testing.

How do I know if I should be tested for osteoporosis?

Some physicians recommend that all women be screened at menopause, when bone loss rises sharply; if a woman’s bones are healthy, they say, she should be screened again four years later. The US Preventive Task Force says that women who weigh less than 154 pounds, or who don’t take supplemental estrogen, should be screened for osteoporosis beginning at age 60. The task force also recommended that women who don’t fit these descriptions should be screened regularly beginning at age 65.

The NOF recommends that the following people get a BMD test:

  • All women aged 65 and older
  • Postmenopausal women under 65 who present one or more risk factors for the disease (other than being white, postmenopausal and female)
  • Postmenopausal women under 65 who have broken or fractured a bone
  • Some physicians also recommend testing for elderly men if they have fractured a bone, are in poor health, or have low testosterone levels.

What is the treatment?

Prevention is key, but there’s a great deal you can do to keep from losing more bone and to increase your low bone density.

Men with osteoporosis will generally be advised to exercise and increase calcium and Vitamin D in their diets (see below). Women, who are often more severely affected by the disease, will get the same advice, and one of the following drug treatments may be recommended as well.

Some osteoporosis drugs known as bisphosphonates have been linked to cases of destruction and death of the jaw bone, among other troubling side effects. Be sure to talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of each therapy, so that together you can choose the one that’s best for you.

What can I do to prevent osteoporosis or slow down further bone loss if I already have osteoporosis?

In three words: change your lifestyle. As with most health issues, diet and exercise are the key to getting and staying healthy. Here are some tips:

  • Watch your weight. Try to put on some pounds if you’re underweight.
  • Get some sunshine. Sunlight also gives us vitamin D, so try to get at least 10 to 15 minutes of direct early morning or late afternoon sunlight on your face and arms three times a week. If you can’t get all of the right nutrients naturally, you can take calcium and vitamin D supplements.
  • Exercise. Experts recommend regular “weight-bearing” exercise (in which your feet and legs bear the weight of your body), such as walking, running, stair climbing, or dancing. This type of exercise can slightly improve your bone density and also gives you strength, agility and balance which will help you avoid falls. Nonweight-bearing exercises (like swimming or biking) will help build muscle but should be accompanied by a weight-bearing exercise for your bones as well. Weightlifting twice a week also helps prevent bone loss and may even increase bone density slightly, and can be started at almost any age.
  • Cut down on bad habits. Don’t smoke tobacco and drink alcohol only in moderation. These substances have been linked to osteoporosis.
  • Have a bone density test and take medications when appropriate.
  • Get enough calcium. You need a diet rich in both calcium and Vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium and build strong bones. Experts recommend that men and women under 50 consume at least 1,000 mg (many say 1,200 mg) of calcium per day, mostly from their diet. People over 50 should consume 1,200 mg. (If you take calcium pills, experts recommend breaking up that dosage into no more than 500 mg at a time.)
  • Make sure you get enough vitamin D as well. The Institute of Medicine recommends that people older than 50 get 400 to 600 IU of vitamin D every day, but some experts say that’s not enough. An expert panel convened by the American Medical Women’s Association found that many older Americans are deficient in vitamin D. The panel recommends 800 to 1,000 IU of vitamin D for anyone over the age of 50.
  • The best option is to get calcium and vitamin D naturally or as much as you can from regular food. For calcium, eat dairy products and green leafy vegetables; for vitamin D, seek out fortified products (like milk and cereal) or foods naturally rich in vitamin D like eggs and salmon.

If I have osteoporosis, how can I protect myself from bone fractures and breaks?

Just remember that your bones aren’t as strong as they used to be, even if your muscles are. Falls are especially dangerous for people with osteoporosis. Here are some ways to prevent injury:

  • Don’t lift heavy objects.
  • Don’t overdo the exercise; start an exercise program like walking slowly and gradually build up speed and distance.
  • Wear good shoes: no heels or slippery soles.
  • Don’t let your pride get in the way of using a cane or walker if it helps you.
  • Have handrails installed on stairways.
  • Try to avoid icy, wet and slippery surfaces; use nonslip mats and have grab bars installed in the bathroom.
  • Take care of your vision so you can better avoid falls; get a new prescription for your glasses if necessary.
  • Use bright lamps and night-lights.
  • Don’t use throw rugs; keep your floors uncluttered to help avoid falls.
  • Put more phone extensions around the house so you don’t have to walk as far to get the phone.


Diseases and Conditions that Cause Osteoporosis. National Osteoporosis Society, 2010.

Low Bone Density and Osteoporosis in Young Adult Women, National Osteoporosis Society. 2010.

Fast Facts. National Osteoporosis Foundation. 2010.

National Osteoporosis Foundation. What Men Need to Know. 2010.

National Osteoporosis Foundation. Who’s at Risk? 2010.

NOF 2010 Clinicians Guide to the Prevention and Treatment of Osteoporosis.

Female Athlete Triad. The Nemours Foundation. Undated.

Rapuri PB, Gallagher JC, Kinyamu HK, Ryschon KL. Caffeine intake increases the rate of bone loss in elderly women and interacts with vitamin D receptor genotypes. Am J Clin Nutr 2001 Nov;74(5):694-700

Ward KD, Klesges RC. A meta-analysis of the effects of cigarette smoking on bone mineral density. Calcif Tissue Int 2001 May;68(5):259-70

van der Voort DJ, Geusens PP, Dinant GJ. Risk factors for osteoporosis related to their outcome: fractures. Osteoporos Int 2001;12(8):630-8

Osteoporosis Screening. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/3rduspstf/osteoporosis/

Patient Brochure: Vitamin D & Your Bone Health. What Women & Men Over 50 Need to Know. American Medical Women’s Association.

BMD Testing: What the Numbers Mean. National Osteoporosis Foundation. http://www.nof.org/osteoporosis/bmdtest.htm

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