What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a disease that thins and weakens bones to the point where they may break easily. This disease most often causes fractures of the bones of the hip, spine, and wrist.

How does it occur?

In young healthy adults, bones continue to grow, reaching their greatest strength around ages 20 to 35. After that, bones slowly become weaker as you get older.

In addition to aging, other causes of osteoporosis are:

  • Lifestyle habits such as smoking, having more than 1 drink of alcohol a day, too little calcium in the diet, not enough weight-bearing exercise such as walking, dancing, or lifting weights
  • Surgical removal of the ovaries, which reduces estrogen levels
  • Long-term use of certain medicines, such as steroids used to treat asthma or arthritis, thyroid medicines, anticonvulsants, certain cancer treatments, and aluminum-containing antacids
  • Chronic diseases that affect the kidneys, lungs, stomach, or intestines or change hormone levels such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and heart failure
  • Intense exercise (such as marathon running) which reduces estrogen levels
  • Long periods of bed rest during serious illness which speeds up the loss of calcium from bones
  • Eating disorders or too much dieting that reduce estrogen levels

What are the symptoms?

You may have no symptoms until a bone breaks. Broken bones are the most common problem for people with osteoporosis. Often it's the hip, arm, or wrist that breaks.

The bones of the spine are also a common area of thinning. Often, over time, the bones of the spine (vertebrae) collapse on themselves, one at a time, causing loss of height, back pain, and a stooping posture (dowager's hump).

How is it diagnosed?

Your health care provider may discover you have osteoporosis from an x-ray taken for some other problem. Otherwise, the diagnosis might be made from a review of your medical history and symptoms, a physical exam, x-rays, and blood tests. You may have a test to measure your bone mineral density, such as a DEXA scan.

How can I take care of myself and help prevent osteoporosis?

  • Follow the treatment prescribed by your health care provider
  • If you are taking medicine to treat your osteoporosis, be sure to take it as directed
  • Eat healthy foods, especially low-fat milk and dairy products, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, sardines, and shellfish
  • Take a daily calcium supplement and vitamin D supplement if your health care provider recommends it
  • Do weight-bearing physical activity, such as walking, regularly. Be sure to exercise your upper body also. Weight-bearing exercise helps prevent bone loss and strengthens muscles, which can help prevent falls
  • Stop smoking: smokers may absorb less calcium from their diet
  • Talk with your health care provider about hormone therapy or other medicines when you reach menopause

Adult Health Advisor 2006.4; Copyright © 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. Developed by McKesson Provider Technologies. This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.