By Seth Greenky, MD, orthopedic surgeon
A broken bone may be more than meets the eye. It might be an early warning sign of osteoporosis, a condition that contributes to more than 1.5 million fractures each year. Osteoporosis is a condition that causes a loss of bone mineral density resulting in the body’s bone becoming sponge-like and porous. It gradually weakens the bones and makes them vulnerable to injury over time.
Osteoporosis is a silent disease and people are often completely unaware that they are afflicted with this condition until a fall that normally would have had minor impact results in a fracture.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, more than 10 million Americans have osteoporosis and more than 30 million have a bone density mass low enough that they are at risk for the disease. Caucasian women are most at risk for developing osteoporosis but there are several other risk factors as well, including small bone structure or being thinner than normal, smoking cigarettes, reduced levels of estrogen after menopause and low dietary intake of calcium or the reduced ability to absorb calcium and Vitamin D.
Doctors usually diagnose osteoporosis by conducting a complete medical history and physical, X-rays, laboratory tests and bone density testing, an X-ray technique that compares bone density to the peak bone density of a person usually in their mid-20s of the same sex and ethnicity.
Osteoporosis is preventable and treatable. Preventive measures such as eating a well-balanced, calcium-rich diet and regular physical exercise are critical to ensuring healthy bones. Bone mass reaches its peak in the mid-20s and then levels off. After people reach their mid thirties, bone mass begins to decline. Adopting a life-long diet rich in calcium and Vitamin D (milk, cheese, yogurt, soy, almonds, leafy green vegetables), engaging in regular weight-bearing exercise such as walking, hiking, jogging, tennis and avoiding habits that lead to calcium loss such as excessive alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking, can reduce bone density loss. Vitamin D in sufficient quantities supports the effective absorption of calcium. Calcium supplements may also be an effective way to ensure an adequate daily intake of this important nutrient. A patient should check with her doctor for the correct calcium supplement.
It is impossible to replace bone that has been lost so treatment focuses on reducing the further loss of bone and preventing injuries. Although there is no cure for osteoporosis, there are many medications that are effective in slowing the loss of bone and increasing bone density. Discuss medication options with your doctor if you have a family history of osteoporosis or have been diagnosed with it by bone density testing.
Osteoporosis is a major health problem affecting millions of Americans. You and your doctor can effectively develop and implement a combination of measures to prevent the further loss of bone, establish effective exercise and nutritional therapies, explore medication treatment options and adopt practices to minimize your risk of injury. Be sure to discuss these options with your doctor at your next visit.