Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis

What causes osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis literally means ‘porous bones’. Our bones are made up of a thick outer shell and a strong inner honeycomb mesh of tiny struts of bone. Osteoporosis means some of these struts become thin or break. This makes the bone more fragile and prone to break. It often remains undetected until the time of this first broken bone. Broken wrists, hips and spinal bones are the most common fractures in people with osteoporosis.

Two types of cells are constantly at work in our bones. One set builds up new bone while another set break down old bone. Up to our mid-20s the construction cells work harder building strength into our skeleton. From about our 40s onwards, the demolition cells overtake and our bones gradually lose their density as a natural part of ageing.

One in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 in the UK will break a bone, mainly because of osteoporosis. Exactly why this happens is still not fully understood. Research continues to build up a picture of the factors that influence our bones.

Who is at risk?

Our bone health is largely down to the genes we inherit from our parents.

But there are other factors that can put people at greater risk:

  • Women if they have had an early menopause or hysterectomy (before the age of 45)
  • Men if they have low levels of testosterone (known as hypogonadism)
  • People who have broken a bone after only a minor trauma (called a fragility fracture)
  • People who take corticosteroid tablets (for conditions such as asthma or arthritis)
  • People with a family history of osteoporosis, particularly if your mother has broken her hip
  • People with medical conditions which affect the absorption of foods, such as Crohn’s disease, coeliac condition or ulcerative colitis
  • People with medical conditions which leave them immobile for a long time
  • People who drink excessive amounts of alcohol
  • People who smoke
  • Women who are underweight or have developed an eating disorder

Osteoporosis can also affect children and young people and pregnant women. However, these conditions are extremely rare.

I think I might be at risk. Can I be tested for osteoporosis?

You cannot see or feel your bones getting thinner. Many people are unaware of any problems until they break a bone or start to lose height.

If you think you are at risk then discuss it further with your GP. You may need a special scan which measures bone density, called a dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scan. It is a simple, painless procedure and is recommended for those people considered at high risk of breaking a bone because of osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis diagnosed on a bone density scan does not always mean you have a high risk of breaking a bone at the time of the scan so a drug treatment is not always necessary or appropriate. Other factors, such as your age, will need to be taken into account.

If you have broken a bone because of osteoporosis there are a range of drug treatments. These will help to reduce your risk of breaking another bone. The way you live your life can also help.

How do I build strong bones?

Whether you have osteoporosis or just want to build strong bones for the future, there are several things we can do to help our bones. Your skeleton grows stronger if you do weight-bearing exercise. This is any kind of physical activity where you are supporting the weight of your own body. Good examples are:

Read our guide to strength training for more information or take a look through our exercise library for examples of strength training.

Source: National Osteoporosis Society

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