Osteoporosis is a condition that affects the bones, causing them to become weak and fragile and more likely to break (fracture).
These fractures most commonly occur in the spine, wrist and hips but can affect other bones such as the arm or pelvis.
What causes osteoporosis?
In childhood, bones grow and repair very quickly, but this process slows as you get older. Bones stop growing in length between the ages of 16 and 18, but continue to increase in density until you are in your late 20s. From about the age of 35, you gradually lose bone density. This is a normal part of ageing, but for some people it can lead to osteoporosis and an increased risk of fractures.
Other things that increase the risk of developing osteoporosis include:
- diseases of the hormone producing glands – such as an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism)
- a family history of osteoporosis
- long-term use of certain medications that affect bone strength or hormone levels, for example, oral prednisolone
- malabsorption problems
- heavy drinking and smoking
Read more about the causes of osteoporosis.
Symptoms of osteoporosis
There are often no warning signs for osteoporosis until someone experiences a fracture, often after a minor fall.
Read more about the symptoms of osteoporosis.
If your doctor suspects you have osteoporosis, or are at high risk of developing the condition, you may be referred for a bone density scan (DEXA scan). This is a short and painless procedure that helps to assess your risk of a fracture.
Read more about diagnosing osteoporosis.
Treatment for osteoporosis is based on treating and preventing fractures and using medication to strengthen your bones.
However, the decision about what treatment, if any, you have will depend on your risk of fracture. This will be based on a number of things such as the results of your DEXA scan and your age.
Read more about how osteoporosis is treated.
It is important that people at risk of osteoporosis take steps to help keep bones healthy and reduce their risk of developing the condition. This may include:
- regular exercise
- healthy eating
- lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and reducing alcohol intake
Read more about preventing osteoporosis.
Who is affected
Approximately 3 million people in the UK are thought to have osteoporosis, and there are over 250,000 fractures every year as a result. Although commonly associated with post-menopausal women, osteoporosis can also affect men, younger women and children.
Living with osteoporosis
If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis, there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of a fall, such as removing hazards from your home and having regular sight and hearing tests.
There are ways to help your recovery from a fracture. This might include:
- hot or cold treatments, with warm baths or cold packs
- TENS electrical device, which is thought to reduce pain by stimulating the nerves
- relaxation techniques
If you are worried about living with a long-term condition, speak to your GP or nurse who may be able to answer any questions you have. Some people with osteoporosis find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor or psychologist, or to others with the condition.
Read more about living with osteoporosis.