One of the things that makes osteoporosis difficult to recognise is that the loss of bone density is usually not noticed until someone breaks a bone.
‘Osteoporosis’ means ‘porous bones’. The body uses calcium stored in the bones to keep all the other organs functioning – more so if you are not eating enough calcium-rich foods to replenish these calcium stores. In someone who has osteoporosis, not enough new bone is formed by the body, or too much of the old bone is reabsorbed. Both these processes can lead to loss of bone density.
A lack of oestrogen in women, and androgen in men can also lead to osteoporosis, as can a lack of vitamin D.
Read: What is Osteoporosis?
There are several symptoms that point to osteoporosis, but unfortunately, by the time they are noticeable, the disease has usually progressed quite far. More about these later.
This is the main reason why it is absolutely essential that the following people should go for bone density tests before the disease might reach such an advanced stage:• Those with a small or very thin frame
• Those with a family history of osteoporosis
• If you’re white or Asian
• If you are a post-menopausal woman
• If you have broken a bone before
• If you are a heavy smoker
• If you lead a sedentary lifestyle
• If you take glucocorticoids, anti-seizure drugs or certain cancer drugs
• If you have very little calcium in your diet
As mentioned, the symptoms of osteoporosis are often invisible, until a fracture occurs. The hips, the spine and the wrist are the bones that are most often broken by men and women with osteoporosis.
Read: Belly fat puts women at risk for osteoporosis
But any fracture in someone over the age of 50 could be a warning sign and should be taken seriously. If bone density tests have not already been done, this is definitely the time. If a slight fall or bump leads to an unexpected bone fracture, this could also be a sign of porous bones. It doesn’t take much to break a weakened bone that is struggling to support your body weight.
It is possible for a vertebra in the back to break or to collapse without your knowing it. These are called hairline breaks in the spine, and could cause you no pain, but will show up on an X-ray.
If you are losing height noticeably (2cm or more) it could be sign of multiple spine fractures or spinal crush fractures as they are also known. These breaks are much more serious and more painful than hairline breaks, and you will definitely be acutely aware of them. A curved spine and bent posture are symptoms of advanced osteoporosis. This is called a ‘dowager’s hump’ and is the result of compression of the front portion of the vertebrae as a result of osteoporosis. This causes a curvature in the upper back.
Read: Could you or a loved one be suffering from osteoporosis? Here are the signs...
Back pain and general fatigue of the back are also symptoms of osteoporosis. Watch out for a dull pain in the bones or the muscles, particularly in the lower back or in the neck. You could also experience pain when you are doing something as insignificant as laughing or coughing.
Sometimes people with osteoporosis experience sharp pains in specific areas of the body. This pain is often made worse by activities that put strain on this area. Sometimes it can disappear in as little as a week, and in other cases it can last up to three months.
Do remember that slight loss of height is normal with advancing age, so not everyone who notices slight height loss has osteoporosis.
Risk factors for osteoporosis
niams.nih.gov; WebMD.com; Mayoclinic.com; emedicinehealth.com; chealth.canoe.ca)
(Reviewed by Tereza Hough, CEO, National Osteoporosis Foundation of South Africa, 2010)