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In the early stages of osteoporosis, there are no symptoms. By the time osteoporosis symptoms — such as bone aches, fractures, loss of physical height, back and neck pain or a stooped-over posture — do occur, the disease typically is in full force and has done its damage. However, early prevention, medication and exercise may all help minimize the devastating effects of osteoporosis and help promote bone health throughout life.
Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to become fragile and break without any real force or trauma. A fall on the ice that might yield only a bruise or two for a person with healthy bones may result in a fractured hip, spine or wrist to a person with osteoporosis.
Who is most affected by osteoporosis?
Out of the 10 million people currently suffering from osteoporosis in the United States, 80 percent are women — and the condition is much more common in seniors. In fact, an estimated 50 percent of women and 25 percent of men ages 50 or older will suffer a broken bone due to osteoporosis at some point during their lifetimes.
Bone mineral density
In looking for symptoms of osteoporosis, they key measure for osteoporosis is bone mineral density, or BMD, which gauges the level of minerals inside the bones to evaluate their strength and density. Osteopenia is a term that refers to a BMD that is lower than desired, but not low enough to be labeled osteoporosis.
How is a bone density test performed?
Low-dosage X-ray machines are most commonly used in bone density tests. The tests are completely noninvasive and safe. You likely will not even have to undress. Your technician will have you lie on a padded table and will run an X-ray machine along your body as it snaps images. Those images will be sent to your doctor, who can judge the density of your bones by their color and texture.
Bone density scans typically focus on your spine and hips, as these areas are the best indicators of the early stages and risk factors of osteoporosis.
Also used are quantitative ultrasounds, which use sound waves instead of X-rays to measure the density of a bone. Ultrasounds are generally used to test the knees, heels and shins.
How Do I Prepare for a Bone Density Scan?
Unlike most medical procedures, there are no strict preparations regarding food or water intake. You will need to remove all jewelry and metal objects, such as keys, coins or belt buckles. As with all X-ray procedures, it is important to inform your technician if you are pregnant or may become pregnant if you are getting a bone density scan.
Who should have bone density tests?
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, all women over 65 should have regular bone density tests. Postmenopausal women with bone fractures also should be tested to confirm their diagnoses. Medicare may cover the cost of the test for women with low estrogen levels and for people who have abnormalities in their spines, primary hyperparathyroidism or who are taking long-term glucocorticoid (steroid) medication or receiving treatment for osteoporosis.
What about premenopausal women?
According to HealthLine.com, women under 65 should have regular bone density tests if they have certain risk factors, including a family history of osteoporosis, chronic rheumatoid arthritis, long-term medication with corticosteroids, bone fracture after the age of 50, smoking or heavy drinking. Early menopause, whether naturally or following surgery, is also a risk factor.
Bone density tests are vital to the early diagnosis of osteoporosis. If you have even one of the aforementioned risk factors, you should speak to your doctor right away to determine if you need to begin bone density testing.
Risk factors for osteoporosis
While everyone loses some bone mass with age, certain factors increase the risk for osteoporosis:
- Women get osteoporosis more often than men.
- The older you are, the greater the risk of acquiring the disease.
- Small, thin women are at a greater risk than larger women.
- White and Asian women are at a higher risk for osteoporosis than black or Hispanic women.
- A family history of osteoporosis increases your risk.
Additional risk factors include:
- Low estrogen levels in women or low testosterone levels in men
- Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, or diets lacking in calcium and vitamin D
- Lack of exercise
- Excessive alcohol intake
Those who feel they have symptoms of osteoporosis should ask their doctors for bone density scanning, also known as a "dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry" (DXA), which is a special form of X-ray that is used to measure bone loss. DXA is the reputable standard for measuring a person's BMD today.
Treatments for osteoporosis vary, but your doctor may recommend increased exercise, eating foods rich in calcium and vitamin D and eliminating risk factors such as smoking or drinking alcohol. In some cases, osteoporosis medications may help reduce the rate of bone loss and aid in restoring healthy bones.
Because fractures are among the greatest risks with osteoporosis, if you or someone in your family has been diagnosed with the condition, it's important to take steps to prevent falls in and around your home:
- Throw out throw-rugs.
- Keep a light on in each room.
- Remove any clutter from floors.
- Use a cane or walker if you feel unsteady on your feet.
One of the best ways to prevent falling is to keep up with your general health by having your vision tested, getting your hearing evaluated and scheduling yearly checkups with your family physician.