What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to become weak, brittle, and prone to fractures (breaks).

A progressive disease, osteoporosis will spread and worsen unless it is treated.  Early detection is very important, as osteoporosis can have a pronounced impact on your health and quality of life.  It is a debilitating, disabling disease – osteoporosis greatly increases the risk of bone fracture, and can drastically affect posture and mobility.

Osteoporosis can cause severe discomfort when it affects the spine.  The vertebrae of the spine can collapse, causing a compression fracture that can pinch or trap nerves (nerve compression).  Those affected by nerve compression experience chronic, shooting pain.[1]

Causes of osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a loss of bone mass and density (commonly known as bone loss).  Reasons for bone loss include:

  • Loss of calcium and phosphate from the bones.  When your skeleton releases these minerals into your bloodstream, your bones can become weak, porous, and fragile.[2]
  • Lifestyle factors: lack of exercise, low calcium intake, vitamin D deficiency, excessive alcohol use, and smoking can all contribute to bone loss.
  • Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

Osteoporosis is also an unfortunate side effect of glucorticoids (also known as corticosteroids or steroids) prescribed to treat asthma, skin diseases, allergies, immune system diseases, lupus, rheumatic diseases, and certain types of cancer.  Steroids[3] like prednisone, cortisol, cortisone, and dexamethasone can prevent reproduction of bone cells,[4] making the skeleton brittle, porous, and weak.

Who gets osteoporosis?

Anyone can develop osteoporosis, but it is most common among postmenopausal women.  One-third of Canadian women will break a bone as a result of osteoporosis (known as an osteoporotic fracture).[5]

This is largely due to hormonal changes.  Women naturally produce less estrogen as they age, and studies have shown that estrogen deficiency is directly related to bone loss.[6]

Osteoporosis is also a hereditary condition – your risk of developing osteoporosis is greater if you have a family history of the disease.

Osteoporosis symptoms

Osteoporosis is, for the most part, asymptomatic.[7]  This means that people can have osteoporosis without feeling or showing any physical signs.

Osteoporosis makes the skeleton fragile, and predominantly affects older people who are often at greater risk of slips and falls.  Minor accidents can have major consequences for people with osteoporosis, who commonly suffer fractures of the hip and other bones.  Hip fractures frequently affect those with osteoporosis, and can have serious consequences unless treated promptly.

Diagnosis of osteoporosis

Osteoporosis may not cause any noticeable symptoms, so it is often detected by a DXA scan (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry).  A DXA scan is similar to an X-ray, and measures one’s bone density.  The DXA scan is widely considered the most effective tool in diagnosing osteoporosis.[8]

Osteoporosis treatment

Osteoporosis specialists will often prescribe the following:

  • Exercise
  • Diet and lifestyle changes, if necessary
  • Medication

If you think you may be at risk of osteoporosis, talk to your doctor – early detection is the key to managing your bone health.

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