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Quick Facts

Osteoporosis

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

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What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a condition that weakens your bones. Your bones become thinner and more fragile. This is called a loss of bone density. If you have osteoporosis, your bones break more easily.

  • Osteoporosis is much more common in women, but some men get osteoporosis too

  • Usually, osteoporosis is caused by aging, low levels of sex hormones, and not getting enough vitamin D or calcium

  • You can prevent osteoporosis by getting enough calcium and vitamin D, doing weight-bearing exercise (such as walking or lifting weights), and taking certain medicines

Bones that are more likely to break in osteoporosis include the:

  • Wrist

  • Spine (vertebrae)

  • Hip

A break in one of the spine bones in your middle or lower back may cause the bones to collapse partway. This is called a vertebral compression fracture.

What causes osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is usually caused by:

  • Aging

  • In women, low levels of estrogen (women's sex hormone)—this happens after menopause

  • In men, low levels of testosterone (men's sex hormone)

  • Not getting enough vitamin D or calcium

Who is at increased risk for osteoporosis?

You have an increased risk of osteoporosis if you:

  • Are very thin

  • Are white or Asian

  • Are in bed for a long time without moving around

  • Smoke or drink alcohol

  • Have family members with osteoporosis

What are the symptoms of osteoporosis?

At first, osteoporosis causes no symptoms. If your bones don't break, you may never have symptoms.

  • When osteoporosis causes your bones to break, you usually have pain. However, sometimes when your spine bones collapse, you don't have pain at first. Then later on you may start to have back pain that gets worse when you stand or walk.

    If several spine bones in a row collapse, your spine may become curved and you may get shorter.

How can doctors tell if I have osteoporosis?

Doctors suspect you have osteoporosis based on your symptoms, especially if you're a woman older than 65 or have risk factors for osteoporosis.

Doctors will test how dense your bones are by using a special type of x-ray called a DXA ("dexa") scan. Your doctor typically will do a DXA scan if you're:

  • A woman over 65

  • A woman past menopause who is under 65 and has risk factors

Sometimes your doctor will do blood tests to check your vitamin D and calcium levels.

How do doctors treat osteoporosis?

If you have a broken bone caused by osteoporosis, your doctor may:

  • Put a cast on it

  • Do surgery

  • Have you wear a back brace (for a collapsed bone in your spin) and do physical therapy

Doctors also will keep your bones from getting weaker by having you:

  • Eat foods with higher amounts of calcium and vitamin D

  • Do weight-bearing exercises, such as walking and climbing stairs

  • Take medicine such as bisphosphonates

Bisphosphonates can help build up your bone density. Hormone supplements also benefit bones. That's because low levels of female hormones may increase your risk of osteoporosis. However, doctors usually don't prescribe hormone supplements just for osteoporosis.

How can I prevent osteoporosis?

Preventing osteoporosis works better than treating it. You can help prevent osteoporosis if you:

  • Quit smoking or don’t start smoking

  • Limit alcohol

  • Get the amounts of calcium and vitamin D that your doctor tells you, which can come from vitamins or foods

  • Do weight-bearing exercises, such as walking and climbing stairs

  • Take medicines your doctor gives you

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