Medically reviewed on May 14, 2018
What Is It?
Osteoporosis is a bone disorder. The bones become thinner. They lose their strength and are more likely to break. People with osteoporosis have a higher risk of fractures.
Bones can fracture even during everyday movements, such as bending or coughing. The most common osteoporotic fractures occur in the wrist, hip and spine.
Osteoporosis can cause a great deal of suffering, including loss of independence. Death may even occur, especially when the fracture involves the hip.
Hip fractures can be difficult to heal. They reduce the person's ability to move around. This can lead to complications and other health problems.
Osteoporosis is much more common in women than in men. This is because of the hormonal changes that occur during menopause.
Osteoporosis is not a form of arthritis. However, it can cause fractures that lead to arthritis.
You are more likely to develop osteoporosis if you:
Are 50 or older
Have a diet low in calcium
Have an intestinal problem that prevents calcium and vitamins from being absorbed
Have an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) or take too much thyroid hormone
Lead a sedentary lifestyle
Take certain medications, such as prednisone
Are Caucasian or of Asian descent
Drink too much alcohol
Have a family history of osteoporosis
Have had at least one "fragility" fracture (one caused by little or no trauma)
Most people with osteoporosis do not have any symptoms. They do not know they have osteoporosis until they have a bone density test or a fracture.
One early sign can be a loss of height caused by curvature or compression of the spine. Curvature or compression is caused by weakened vertebrae (spine bones). The weakened vertebrae develop tiny breaks called compression fractures.
Compression fractures cause the spine bones to collapse vertically. When this happens, the vertebrae become shorter. The shape of each single vertebra goes from a normal rectangle to a more triangular form.
Compression fractures can cause back pain or aching. But the loss of height usually does not cause any symptoms.
Osteoporosis usually does not cause pain unless a bone is fractured.
During a physical exam, your doctor may find that you are shorter than you thought you were. Or, your doctor may notice a "dowager's hump." This is a curve of the spine in the upper back that produces a hump.
X-rays may show that your bones are less dense than expected. This could be caused by osteoporosis. But there are also other possible causes, such as not enough vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is common. It is easy for your doctor to diagnose.
Your doctor will suspect osteoporosis if you have had a fragility fracture.
A bone density test can confirm an osteoporosis diagnosis. Several techniques measure bone density.
The most accurate bone density test is DEXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry). DEXA takes 10 to 15 minutes and is painless. It uses minimal amounts of radiation and generally is done on the spine and hip.
A newer test is ultrasound bone density of the heel. It is even quicker and less expensive than DEXA. But it is not widely available or accepted as an accurate screening test for osteoporosis. Usually, people who are found to have osteoporosis by heel ultrasound eventually go on to have DEXA of the spine and hip.
Bone density tests can diagnose osteoporosis when the condition is mild and before fractures develop. This can lead to treatment that will prevent the condition from getting worse.
In people with loss of height or suspicious fractures, bone density tests confirm the diagnosis of osteoporosis.
They also serve as a baseline for treatment. They can be used to follow the response to treatment.
Additional blood and urine tests may be recommended to identify a cause of osteoporosis, such as a thyroid problem. However, for most people, no clear cause (other than age and being postmenopausal) is found.
Osteoporosis is a long-term (chronic) condition. But proper treatment can lead to significant improvements in bone mass. It can decrease the likelihood that a fracture will occur.
Bone mass usually does not return to normal after treatment. But the risk of fracture may decrease dramatically after treatment.
You can help to prevent osteoporosis by:
Getting enough calcium and vitamin D.
Eat foods rich in calcium, such as low fat dairy products, sardines, salmon, green leafy vegetables and calcium-fortified foods and beverages. Your doctor may also prescribe a calcium supplement.
You may also need to take a vitamin D supplement or a daily multivitamin.
Regularly doing weight-bearing exercises
Avoiding excess alcohol
If you are a woman who has recently entered menopause, talk to your doctor about being evaluated for osteoporosis.
There are several medications to prevent menopause-related osteoporosis. These include:
Estrogen replacement therapy (not routinely recommended)
Estrogen slows the breakdown of bone. The loss of estrogen during menopause leads to bone loss. Estrogen therapy helps to counteract this process. However, estrogen replacement therapy has fallen out of favor. That is because of side effects, including an increased risk of heart disease and stroke when taken by women more than 10 years past menopause.
Raloxifene (Evista) is an alternative to estrogen replacement therapy. It behaves like estrogen on bone to increase bone density.
Alendronate and risedronate are bisphosphonates. This family of drugs slows down the breakdown of bone. They can help bone to become thicker.
If a bone density test shows signs of a problem, it may help you to decide whether to begin taking a preventive medication. You should also measure your height every year, especially if you are a woman older than age 40.
Too much thyroid medication may lead to osteoporosis and other medical problems. Monitor thyroid medication regularly if you take it.
If you take prednisone, work with your doctor to reduce the dose to the lowest possible amount. Or, discontinue the medication if possible.
Doctors initially treat osteoporosis by:
Making sure the person gets enough calcium daily and prescribing calcium if dietary sources are not adequate
Prescribing vitamin D
Recommending weight-bearing exercises
Modifying other risk factors
For women, many medications are available to treat osteoporosis. These include:
Bisphosphonates. These are the drugs used most often to treat osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. Bisphosphonates inhibit the breakdown of bone. They may even increase bone density. Most are taken as a tablet, by mouth. But some may be given intravenously.
Bisphosphonates can cause side effects. These include nausea, abdominal pain, irritation of the esophagus and difficulty swallowing. One rare but serious side effect is death of the jawbone caused by poor blood supply.
Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs). SERM s treat osteoporosis by mimicking the effects of estrogen to increase bone density.
Calcitonin (Miacalcin). Calcitonin is a hormone produced by the thyroid gland. It is given as a nasal spray. Calcitonin inhibits bone breakdown.
Teriparatide (Forteo). Teriparatide is a form of parathyroid hormone. It stimulates the growth of new bone. Teriparatide is given by a daily injection. It is not yet recommended for long-term therapy.
Denosumab (Prolia). Denosumab is a type of biological therapy. It is an antibody that targets a protein involved in bone breakdown. By attacking this protein, it helps stop bone loss.
Estrogen replacement therapy. Rarely recommended because of associated risks. Replaces estrogen lost during menopause. Estrogen slows the breakdown of bone.
Long-term estrogen therapy has been associated with many risks. These include an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, breast cancer and gallstones. Estrogen replacement therapy is rarely used to prevent or treat osteoporosis.
Among men, a low level of testosterone is the most common cause of osteoporosis (other than aging). Testing can reveal if testosterone levels are low. In this case, other tests will look for the cause so that treatment can be started. Men also can use alendronate and raloxifene.
Your doctor will monitor how well your treatment is working. He or she will do this by taking bone density measurements every one to two years.
If a person with osteoporosis fractures a hip, surgery may be needed. Surgery will realign and stabilize the hip.
A wrist fracture may heal well simply by being put in a cast. Sometimes surgery may be needed to restore proper alignment of the bones.
Other treatments for fracture include pain medication and rest for a short time.
Calcitonin injections may reduce spine pain from a new compression fracture.
When To Call a Professional
Review your options for evaluation and treatment with your doctor if you have:
Risk factors for osteoporosis
Had a fracture with little or no trauma
The outlook for people with osteoporosis is good, especially if the problem is detected and treated early. Bone density, even in severe osteoporosis, generally can be stabilized or improved. The risk of fractures can be substantially reduced with treatment.
People with mild osteoporosis have an excellent outlook. Those who have a fracture can expect their bones to heal normally. The pain usually goes away within a week or two.
In some people, osteoporosis has a clear cause. The outlook is especially good if the cause is identified and corrected.
Learn more about Osteoporosis
Micromedex® Care Notes
Symptoms and treatments
Mayo Clinic Reference
National Institutes of Health
Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases -- National Resource Center, 2 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892-3676
Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.