Bones are living tissue and, because of this, the body is constantly absorbing and replacing minerals from bones. When the body begins to absorb minerals faster than it can replace them, bone density decreases. This decrease in bone density can lead to osteoporosis, which literally means “porous bone.”
Osteoporosis causes bones to become brittle, which means that there is a greatly increased risk of broken bones, especially hips. 40 million people in the United States either have osteoporosis already or are at high risk of developing it. According to an article published in the McGill Journal of Medicine, as many as 250,000 hip fractures are attributed to osteoporosis each year in the United States.
There are often no symptoms associated with early osteoporosis, and later symptoms can be subtle enough to ignore. Because of this, many people don’t realize they have osteoporosis until a bump, strain, or fall causes a broken bone. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of the risk factors for osteoporosis.
The major risk factors include:
- Gender: Women are much more likely to develop osteoporosis
- Age: Women over 50 and men over 70 are at higher risk
- Ethnicity: Osteoporosis is more common among Caucasian and Asian women
- Family history: Osteoporosis often runs in families
- Frame size: People with smaller frame sizes are at a higher risk, because they have less bone mass to begin with
If a patient has multiple risk factors, his or her doctor might suggest a bone density test, also called a bone scan. Even if the patient is not diagnosed with osteoporosis as a result of the bone scan, it’s possible the test might show a lowered bone density, which means a higher risk for osteoporosis later on. Knowing that a patient is at risk for osteoporosis can allow his or her physician to suggest therapies or medications to slow or stop the onset of osteoporosis.
The most effective way to prevent osteoporosis is to maintain a healthy lifestyle during the first 2 decades of life by eating a nutrient-rich diet and exercising regularly. However, it’s never too late to make lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. For example, avoiding tobacco use and excessive alcohol is highly recommended, since both can both weaken bones and lead to osteoporosis.
A healthy diet is another key to osteoporosis prevention.
It’s recommended that the average adult get around 1,000 mg of calcium every day, although women over 50 and men over 70 should get about 1,200 mg. When the body doesn’t have enough calcium to function, it takes calcium from the bones, leading to decreased bone density and osteoporosis. The National Institutes of Health provide a table of recommended calcium intake for different populations.
The body also needs vitamin D because it aids in the absorption of calcium. Vitamin D from the sun can be absorbed through the skin, or it can be obtained through diet. Foods like egg yolks, liver, saltwater fish, and fortified dairy products are rich in vitamin D. If needed, there are also supplements available that provide both calcium and vitamin D.
Exercises that strengthen the muscles will also strengthen the bones, which can prevent or slow the onset of osteoporosis.
Activities like running, jogging, dancing, or jumping rope can strengthen bones, but these are all quite high-impact and more appropriate for those who do not have any loss of bone density.
If a patient has already been diagnosed with lowered bone density or osteoporosis, high-impact exercises could cause bone fractures. Therefore, low-impact exercises such as using an elliptical or stair-step machine, practicing gentle aerobics, or walking can be beneficial for patients with osteoporosis.
Another simple but very important way of preventing broken bones is to avoid falling. The people most at risk for osteoporosis are seniors and the elderly, and this population is also, unfortunately, more likely to have impaired balance, sight, and strength, which can lead to falls. Simple preventative measures like moving electrical cords, having proper lighting, and putting salt on ice in the winter can prevent falls.
A broken hip can be extremely detrimental to a patient’s quality of life and, in some cases, can even lead to death.
Because the hip is so necessary to movement, a broken hip can interfere with the ability to take part in everyday activities. Many seniors who break a hip are unable to care for themselves afterwards and must turn to long-term nursing care. Additionally, as many as 20% of seniors who break a hip will die within a year, either because of conditions related to the broken bone or the surgery to repair the broken bone. For a successful recovery, it’s important to regain mobility and resume normal day to day activities as soon as possible. To assist in this, there are various pain-management techniques that can alleviate discomfort or pain.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) are effective for reducing inflammation, thereby lessening discomfort. If these are not sufficient, oral opioids can be prescribed to block pain signals.
Alternatively, the patient’s physician may recommend a spinal nerve block injection. This injection is a pain medication, like lidocaine or mepivacaine, that is delivered directly to the affected spinal nerve. A similar procedure called a hip joint injection is the insertion of anesthetics directly into the hip joint. Both a spinal nerve block and a hip joint injection might also contain corticosteroids to reduce inflammation.
Another type of pain management therapy involves electric currents. Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS) is the placement of small pads or a cap on the affected area. Electrical impulses are delivered that block pain signals along the nerves. TENS has received support as an effective pain management treatment, that is also very low-risk.
Because stronger muscles provide better protection from broken bones, it’s important for patients with osteoporosis to talk to their physicians about pain management techniques, as well as strengthening exercises that are appropriate for them.
Have you suffered a broken bone from osteoporosis?
Image by David Hodgson via Flickr