Osteoporosis: Causes, symptoms, risk factors, diagnosis, and treatment

Osteoporosis is a condition in which the density of the bones decreases, making them weak and brittle to an extent that a minor fall or stress can cause a fracture; mild stress can also include bending over and coughing. The word osteoporosis typically refers to porous/spongy bones.

Bones are essentially living tissues that in their natural course are broken down and replaced constantly; during the renewal process of bones, the old bone tissue is broken and replaced by new bone tissue produced by cells of the body. The rate of breaking and renewal of bones changes with various stages of life, with new bones being formed very quickly during childhood but decreasing with age. General bone loss with age is normal and not a sign of concern; however, when the bones tend to become too fragile the condition known as osteoporosis – requires medical attention. Osteoporosis causes the holes in the bone structure to become larger, reducing the overall density of the bones and causing them to break easily.

Osteoporosis can occur in men and women; however, due to certain reasons white and Asian women are more prone to the risk of osteoporosis.

Causes of Osteoporosis

In the normal course of functioning, the bones in our body break down to make way for newer and stronger bones. This process of renewal of bones is continues throughout all stages of life; however, the balance of old bone being replaced with a sturdier, new bone varies per different factors. And when this balance becomes highly fragile, leading to more loss of bone than renewal, the condition is referred to as osteoporosis which makes the holes in the honeycomb structure of the bones larger than normal, causing them to break easily.

During young age, the process of bone renewal is strong, implying that the body makes new bones faster than it breaks the old bones causing an increase in bone density. But with increasing age, this balance is disturbed and by the time people reach the age of 30 they are already at the maximum bone density level. With age, loss of bone mass is faster than it is formed. Hence, the chances of a person developing osteoporosis depend largely on how much of bone mass they achieve in their youth. This is also highly influenced by race, ethnicity, family history, diet, and lifestyle patterns.

Risk Factors

Some factors that make some people more prone to developing osteoporosis are:

  • Sex: Women are more likely to be affected by osteoporosis than men.
  • Age: Increasing age causes higher chances of osteoporosis
  • Race: Asian and White descent people are more at risk for osteoporosis
  • Family History: If a parent or sibling has osteoporosis, it increases the risk.
  • Body Frame Size: People with smaller body frames are at more risk of being affected by osteoporosis.
  • Hormones: Osteoporosis is more common in people who have excessive or too less of certain hormones such as low estrogen in women and testosterone in men. Also, presence of too much of thyroid hormones can increase chances of osteoporosis.
  • Dietary Factors: People who have low calcium intake or suffer from eating disorders are at more risk of osteoporosis. Moreover, men or women who have undergone a gastrointestinal surgery are more prone to bone thinning because of inability of the body to absorb calcium and other nutrients from food.
  • Certain Medications: Long-term use of certain medications and steroids can interfere with the bone building process, increasing chances of osteoporosis.
  • Health Problems: Existing health conditions such as cancer, lupus, kidney or liver disease, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, etc. can increase the likelihood of osteoporosis.
  • Lifestyle Patterns: People who follow a sedentary lifestyle, have no physical workout or consume too much of alcohol or tobacco – are at more risk of suffering from osteoporosis.

Symptoms of Osteoporosis

Typically, during the early stages of osteoporosis there are no symptoms. A person may be experiencing bone loss and not know about it until they have a fracture or break after an accident such as fall, etc. Though in some cases, a person suffering from osteoporosis can experience symptoms such as below:

  • Extreme back pain due to a fracture or a collapsed vertebra
  • Loss of height
  • Stooped posture
  • Fragile bones
  • Ill-fitted clothes

Osteoporotic bones are so fragile that they can break even from a cough or a sneeze. Bones that are more prone to damage are hip, wrists, or the spinal vertebra. One must consult the doctor when they experience extreme discomfort or pain in common locations that are more prone to osteoporotic bone damage.

Diagnosis of Osteoporosis

While a person suffering from osteoporosis might not experience any symptoms till some time; however, if due to some indications, the doctors feel that a person might have osteoporosis, they may ask the patient to take the Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) which can assess the density of the bones. The scan takes about 15 minutes and X-Rays the bones to know the bone mass. The results can be categorized into the following:

Normal – The patient has adequate bone density and no osteoporosis; hence low risk of a low-impact fracture

Osteopenia – This stage is categorized when the bone density is low but still the risk of a low-impact fracture is small. Treatment might be needed or not depending on other risk conditions.

Osteoporosis – This stage is categorized with low bone density and high risk of low-impact fracture. This stage calls for treatment.

Treatment of Osteoporosis

The treatment of osteoporosis is targeted at the following:

  • To reduce the risk of low-impact fractures
  • Improve bone density
  • Maintain healthy bone mass
  • Minimise pain
  • Slow the development of osteoporosis

Treatment and preventive options of osteoporosis include the following:

  • Healthy Diet: A healthy diet and nutrition go a long way in reducing chances of osteoporosis. Generally a healthy diet should be rich in protein, calcium, fibre and Vitamin D which are all very essential to maintain healthy bone density in the long run.
  • Exercising: Physical exercise and active lifestyle is very critical to ensure healthy joints and bones. Exercise helps to build strong bones and reduce loss of bones over time. Also, exercising helps to maintain a healthy weight which also helps in preventing risk of osteoporosis. It is critical to start exercising from a young age to avoid the risk. Weight bearing, balancing and Yoga exercises can be very useful in this particular case.
  • Lifestyle habits: Unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking and consumption of alcohol and tobacco harms the bone density causing higher loss of bone than renewal. Hence, it is best to avoid smoking to maintain healthy estrogen levels and reduce alcohol intake to avoid fall and improve bone health.
  • Supplements: In addition to taking a healthy diet, it is important to take Vitamin and calcium supplements to maintain good bone health and mass.
  • Medications: Depending on the condition and the level of osteoporosis, the doctor might suggest medications and drug treatment that can include pain killers, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and antiresorptive drugs.

Osteoporosis can completely be avoided provided individuals are aware of the importance of a healthy diet, active lifestyle and daily supplements. Preventive measures that are initiated from a young age, go a long way in maintain bone density and reducing the risk of osteoporosis.