Osteoporosis is a common disease that causes a thinning and weakening of the bones. It can affect people of any age. Women have the greatest risk of developing the disease, although it also occurs in men. Osteoporosis affects 55% of Americans aged 50 or older; one-half of women and a quarter of men will fracture a bone as a result of low bone density (osteopenia) or osteoporosis. Thin bones are the cause of 1.5 million fractures per year in the United States; hip fractures alone result in 300,000 hospitalizations. It is important to diagnosis low bone density or osteoporosis early so that steps can be taken to rebuild bone strength and lessen the risk of fracture.
Osteoporosis is a bone disease characterized by low bone density (thickness of the bone), decreased bone strength, and a change in the bone structure, which can lead to an increased risk of fracture. The normal bone structure becomes thinned out and porous with poor nutrition, aging, or when osteoporosis develops, lessening the ability of the bone to withstand the typical forces that are applied in everyday living. Fractures from low bone density and osteoporosis can be serious, causing pain and affecting quality of life.
Bone is living tissue. Normally, one type of cell removes bone and another type of cell adds bone in a balanced, ongoing process. In osteoporosis, bones weaken when not enough new bone is formed and/or too much bone is lost. This imbalance commonly begins in women during the first 5 years of menopause. However, it can also occur in men and in children, often due to diseases that affect bone development, such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, spina bifida, cystic fibrosis, or kidney disease. Some medicines, such as steroids, may increase the risk of developing osteoporosis. Athletes who are underweight during the time of peak bone development are also susceptible.
There are many factors that can cause a person to be at risk for developing osteoporosis. It is important to know your risks so that you can be diagnosed and proactive in your treatment.
Osteoporosis is a disease that can be “silent.” There may be no outward symptoms until a fracture occurs. If you are middle-aged or older, you may notice a loss of height or the appearance of a humpback. You may also begin to experience pain between your shoulder blades or above the crest of the pelvis.
People with low bone density may experience fractures in everyday situations that would not occur in persons with healthy bones, such as breaking a hip or a wrist with a fall from a standing height, breaking a rib when opening a window or when receiving a hug, or breaking an ankle after stepping off a curb. These are called fragility fractures and are a red flag for bone disease. Spinal compression fractures, particularly those in the upper back or thoracic spine (area between the neck and the lower back), are the most common fractures, followed by hip and wrist fractures.
If you are seeing a physical therapist for back pain or other rehabilitation issues, the therapist will review your medical, family, medication, exercise, dietary, and hormonal history, conduct a complete physical examination, and determine your risk factors for osteoporosis. The assessment may lead the physical therapist to recommend further testing.
Osteoporosis is best diagnosed through a quick and painless specialized X-ray called the DXA, which measures bone density. The results are reported using T-scores and Z-scores.
Other methods of measuring bone density include X-ray, ultrasound, and CT scan.
Your physical therapist can develop a specific program based on your individual needs to help improve your overall bone health, keep your bones healthy, and help you avoid fracture. Your physical therapist may teach you:
Healthy bone is built and maintained through a healthy lifestyle. Your physical therapist will teach you specific exercises to meet your particular needs.
The exercise component for bone building or slowing bone loss is very specific and similar for all ages. Bone grows when it is sufficiently and properly stressed, just as muscle grows when challenged by more than usual weight. Two types of exercise are optimal for bone health: weight-bearing and resistance.
It is best for a physical therapist to provide your individual bone-building prescription to ensure that you are neither overexercising nor underexercising. Typically, exercises are performed 2 to 3 times a week as part of an overall fitness program.
If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis or low bone density, your physical therapist will work with you to:
Conservative treatment of a fracture includes bed rest and appropriate pain treatment. Your physical therapist will work with you to:
If your pain lasts longer than 6 weeks following a spinal fracture, you can discuss surgical options, such as vertebroplasty or kyphoplasty, with your physical therapist, primary care physician, and surgeon.
Children and adolescents. Physical therapists can educate families and youth groups on proper exercise and posture, and about the need to move daily to build bone strength and prevent bone loss. Children with health issues such as spina bifida, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and cerebral palsy are at a greater risk for bone disease and can particularly benefit from the guidance of a physical therapist. Proper physical conditioning is crucial for children and adolescents: the majority of bone is built during adolescence and peaks by the third decade of life.
Middle-aged and older adults. As people age, they may begin to notice postural, balance, and strength changes. Physical therapists work with middle-aged and older adults to:
Osteoporosis can be prevented by building adequate bone density through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Building strong bones requires an adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D, and regular exercise.
There are steps to take to improve bone health at any age. An active lifestyle that includes resistance and weight-bearing exercise is important to maintain healthy bone. It is also important to avoid habits that promote bone loss, such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and an inadequate intake of calcium in your diet. Maintaining good body mechanics and posture also contribute to good bone health. We have no control over the genetic tendencies we have inherited, but we can choose to manage osteoporosis through proper medication, diet, and appropriate exercise.
As with any health issue, an overall healthy lifestyle is important for staying well.
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