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Osteoporosis: An Overview
Learn the basics about risk factors, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of osteoporosis.

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Picture of skeleton Osteoporosis: An Overview

Osteoporosis is a serious health threat to both men and women, especially as they age. In osteoporosis, the bones become thin and weak and may break easily. A simple fall that would only bruise a young person can cause a fracture in a person with osteoporosis. Spine, hip, and wrist fractures are the most common. They can result in chronic pain and disability. The risk of osteoporosis increases with age, but you can take steps to lower your risk. Even if you have osteoporosis, healthy lifestyle habits can help reduce further bone loss and build bone strength.

What are the risk factors?
Many things can increase the risk of osteoporosis. Some of them can't be changed, such as aging and being a woman. But others are within your control. The risk factors for osteoporosis in women include:

  • Advanced age
  • Small or thin frame
  • White or Asian ethnicity
  • Family history of osteoporosis or broken bones
  • Low estrogen level, especially after menopause
  • Lack of calcium and vitamin D
  • Diseases that affect bone, such as thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, or inflammatory bowel disease
  • Long-term use of medications that affect bone, such as oral steroids or seizure medications
  • Long-term bedrest or lack of physical activity
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Smoking

Can it be prevented?
Fortunately, it is possible to build bone density at any age. Calcium helps keep bones strong, and vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. Many foods have calcium, including low-fat dairy products, green leafy vegetables, canned salmon, and sardines. Your doctor can tell you if you need calcium or vitamin D supplements.

Regular exercise is also important. Bones become stronger and denser when you place demands on them. Two types of exercise can help:

  • Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, dancing, or jogging cause your bones and muscles to work against gravity.
  • Resistance exercises are activities using free weights and weight machines.

Check with your doctor before you change your activity level.

How is it diagnosed?
A bone mineral density test is an x-ray test that can detect osteoporosis. The most common bone density test is DXA, short for dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry. It can spot bone loss in its earliest stages, before fractures occur. The results can be used to predict the risk of future fractures. It can be repeated to see how well treatment is working.

How is it treated?
The goals of treatment for osteoporosis are to stop or slow bone loss as much as possible and to prevent fractures. As part of your treatment, your doctor may recommend that you:

  • Get regular weight-bearing exercise.
  • Eat more calcium-rich foods and possibly take calcium and vitamin D supplements.
  • Limit alcohol, and don't smoke.
  • Take steps to avoid falls, which could result in fractures.

Medication may also be prescribed. Osteoporosis medications may help increase bone mass or keep bone from breaking down. Some common ones include:

  • Bisphosphonates, such as alendronate (Fosamax), risedronate (Actonel), and ibandronate (Boniva)
  • Calcitonin (Miacalcin)
  • Raloxifene (Evista)
  • Parathyroid hormone (Forteo)
  • Denosumab (Prolia)

All medications have possible risks and side effects. Ask your doctor to discuss the pros and cons of these medications.

By Jenilee Matz, MPH, Staff Writer
Created on 05/07/2002
Updated on 06/09/2011
  • National Osteoporosis Foundation. Clinician's guide to prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.
  • U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Screening for osteoporosis.
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Osteoporosis handout on health.
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