What is Osteoporosis?

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Osteoporosis is a disease that thins and weakens the bones to the point that they become fragile and break easily. It occurs when bones lose minerals, such as calcium, more quickly than the body can replace them, leading to a loss of bone thickness (bone density or mass).

This booklet outlines the symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis. It also highlights what you can do to help manage your condition and make day-to-day life easier

What are the symptoms of osteoporosis?

If you’ve broken a bone in a relatively minor fall or accident, it’s quite often the first sign of osteoporosis.

You’re most likely to fracture your hip, spine or wrist.You may have back pain, which is caused by your vertebrae becoming weak and damaged. These are known as vertebral crush fractures, and they can cause your vertebrae to lose height. It usually happens at chest level (the area known as the thoracic spine). If several vertebrae lose height, your spine will start to curve and you may look shorter.

Vertebral crush fractures can make breathing difficult because there’s less space under your ribs. If you have a vertebral crush fracture you have a greater risk of fracturing your hips or wrists.

What causes osteoporosis?

There are a variety of factors that can put you at risk for developing osteoporosis. These risk factors include:

  • Steroids: Taking steroids can affect the production of bone partly by reducing the amount of calcium absorbed from the gut and increasing calcium loss through your kidneys.
  • Oestrogen deficiency: Women who’ve had an early menopause (before the age of 45) or a hysterectomy where one or both ovaries have been removed are at greater risk. Removal of the ovaries only (ovariectomy or oophorectomy) is relatively rare but is also associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis.
  • Lack of exercise: Moderate exercise encourages bone development. Anyone who doesn’t exercise, or who has an illness or disability that makes exercise difficult, will be more prone to losing calcium from the bones and more likely to be diagnosed with osteoporosis. Women who exercise so intensively that their periods stop are also at a higher risk.
  • Poor diet: People whose diet doesn’t include enough calcium or vitamin D or who are significantly underweight are at greater risk of osteoporosis.
  • Heavy smoking: Tobacco lowers the oestrogen level in women and may cause early menopause. In men, smoking lowers testosterone activity and this can also weaken the bones.
  • Heavy drinking: Drinking a lot of alcohol reduces the ability of your body’s cells to make bone. It also increases the risk of breaking a bone as a result of a fall.
  • Family history: Osteoporosis runs in families. This is probably because there are inherited factors that affect the development of bone. If a close relative has suffered a fracture linked to osteoporosis then your own risk of a fracture is likely to be greater than normal. We don’t yet know if a genetic defect causes osteoporosis, although we do know that people with a very rare genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta are more likely to develop osteoporosis.

Download full booklet here

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