Osteoporosis is a word that sounds quite scary, and you may remember hearing the word when you were much younger, usually in connection with little old ladies falling and breaking their hips (or what you thought of as old at the time!). How do you get Osteoporosis? To answer this, it is helpful to know what it is first.
What is Osteoporosis when it’s at home?
Simply put, Osteoporosis is the loss of bone mass without the replenishment of it. In young people, your body naturally builds new bone, but as we age, our bodies slow down the production of bone mass, and bone loss starts to occur. This loss of bone density leads to a condition called Osteoporosis which causes brittle bones and increased risks of fractures.
So then, how do you get Osteoporosis?
We already have one clue…getting older! Some more reasons:
Being female: Women are more likely to get Osteoporosis than men due to hormonal changes in certain periods of their lives. (Men with low testosterone levels may also get Osteoporosis).
Being menopausal: The sudden drop in Estrogen that women experience in menopause is a contributing factor.
Close family who had Osteoporosis: This increases your likelihood of suffering from the disease, especially of you have a mother or sister had it.
Certain medications: If you’ve had to take long-term medication for conditions such as Rheumatoid Arthritis or Asthma (like Cortisone), this is damaging to your bone health.
Long-term smoking: The toxins from nicotine upsets the balance of hormones in your body (such as Estrogen), and increases the hormone cortisol which leads to the breaking down of bone. Nicotine and free radicals (which are molecules which attack and overwhelm the body’s natural defenses) kill the bone-making cells and affects the blood supply of oxygen. This is why smokers don’t heal well after suffering from a fracture.
Long-term drinking: Chronic heavy drinking, especially during the teen and young adult years has an adverse effect on bone health, and greatly increases the risk of Osteoporosis in later years…one way your past can catch up with you…Alcohol affects your body’s ability to absorb calcium which is vital for bone health.
A sedentary lifestyle without adequate physical exercise: Bones become weaker without physical activity. Weight-bearing exercise builds bone mass.
Lack of vitamin D: This can cause Osteoporosis in adults as calcium is lost from the bones (Vitamin D helps with the absorption of Calcium).
How will you know if you have it?
Of course, you can’t see your bones so how do you know if your bones are brittle and if Osteoporosis has taken up residence in your body? You may not know you have this condition until you break a bone. However, there are a few other indications that you may want to check out:
- You keep breaking your fingernails – your nails cause you problems as they are brittle and constantly breaking, and cost you a lot of money in having your nails done if you can afford it! Tip: if you constantly have your hands in warm, soapy water washing dishes, or use chemicals in your job, this may also affect the condition of your nails.
- When you brush your teeth your gums may bleed due to receding gums. Your gums will bleed if you have loss of bone in the jaw, so check with your dentist.
- You seem to be shrinking in height. This may be due to bone loss or you simply have bad posture. Perhaps your muscles have weakened as well.
- Many aches, pains and cramps not only in your muscles, but also in your bones. This may be caused by insufficient vitamin D, and if you have lots of aches and cramps in your legs and calves at night, this could indicate an insufficiency of calcium and magnesium. Over time, left untreated, this would lead to bone loss.
- If you are generally unfit, or seem to have lost your strength. Weak hand grip in women particularly indicates a loss in bone density.
How is Osteoporosis diagnosed?
Usually your doctor will order a DEXA (dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry) scan test for you. Very often, during menopause, or post-menopause, this is a test your doctor will order to check the condition of your bone mass as there is always a degree of bone loss in menopause.
This test measures your bone density in your spine, hips or total body to determine your risk of fractures due to brittle bones or low bone density. It also diagnoses Osteoporosis and Osteopenia (a less severe form or a precursor to Osteoporosis).
I can tell you from personal experience that the DEXA scan is not painful at all – I had mine done two weeks ago. You lie on a metal structure (I had an examination gown on), very still, whilst a large machine passes over your body. The technician may instruct you, or place you in various positions in order for the x-ray to be taken. The whole procedure took slightly over 5 minutes. I have found an easy-to-understand resource for interpreting the DEXA results here.
I have been diagnosed as having Osteoporosis in my spine, and Osteopenia (a lesser form) in my hips. I suspected that may be the case as I’ve had lower back ache for the past two years, but I must admit that I did not think much about it. I thought that it was because I was guilty of a significant drop in my physical activity due to a change in my work situation, and too much stress! Hard lesson learned!
Me being me, I always like to know what I’m up against, hence I started to research, leading to this post. I want to know what I’m up against, what can be done, and how I can help others who are in the same boat. So, what’s next?
Action Plan for Osteoporosis
Being diagnosed with Osteoporosis or Osteopenia is not something to be ignored. If you stick your head in the sand and pretend that nothing is wrong (which is what I am prone to do), the condition will worsen without intervention. Not a good idea!
The biggest risk you face when your bones are thin is the risk of falling and fracturing your bones. You may think that you’ve never had a problem with balance, but did you know that we all naturally start decreasing our balance by around 1% yearly after age 35? So your balance may well not be what you remember it to be!
To drug or not to drug?
There is an option where you can use medication for your Osteoporosis diagnosis. For me personally, that will be a last resort. I’ve never been one to easily agree to medication, and the Osteoporosis meds just have too many potential nasty side effects for me. A “safe” drug without side effects is very rare, and this is no exception with some of the following as potential side effects:
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Chest and throat pain
- Debilitating bone, muscle & joint pain
- Increased risk of fractures
- Gastrointestinal problems (stomach and esophagus ulcers)
- Rashes of the skin
- Jawbone decay (rare side effect called osteonecrosis)
Some studies show relatively small potential benefits of taking the drugs compared to the risks to taking them. That is a choice you would need to make if you find yourself in this position.
For myself, I’d like to have an honest go at trying more natural remedies for improving my bone density until my next scan in two years time. Some options I’m looking at include:
Weight bearing exercise:
I have to get back (albeit more carefully now) to the strength-training which was so much a part of my daily life just a few short years ago! Great incentive to be motivated to do this again!
Weight bearing exercise is that which puts pressure on your bones, and could include walking and body weight exercise like squats and lunges. These also build muscle and improve your strength, always desirable! Fortunately I like strength training, so am happy to lift weights as well. Caution is needed when dancing because of the risk of falling if you have decreased balanced, but it is also weight bearing if you’re into dancing. Tai Chi is a gentle form of improving your balance which would be worth looking into (I did it years ago).
Running is probably not a good idea due to the jarring on your bones, particularly if you have not run in years or are not into running anyway.
Eating the correct nutrients:
The two most vital nutrients for strong bones are vitamin D and calcium. If you don’t have enough calcium in your diet, your body will leech it from your bones which will lead to a deficit. Vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption – it’s pointless to have the one without the other.
Sources of calcium: Food like kale, collard greens, broccoli, almonds and almond butter, yogurt, milk and cheese. Dairy products have long been thought of as good sources for calcium, my concern here is that many people are lactose intolerant, and there is a fair amount of research against the benefit of dairy, especially milk, to the human body.
Sources of vitamin D: Egg yolks, sardines, mackerel, sardines, salmon are important sources to eat. (Vitamin D also comes from sunlight. Try to get at least 10 to 15 minutes of sunlight on your skin at least 4 times weekly).
Supplements: Calcium – the recommended allowance is around 1,200 mg of calcium daily. Don’t try to replenish too much calcium into your body at once as taking more than 2, 500 mg daily can lead to overdose and kidney stones!
Vitamin D supplements: around 800 International Units (IU) of vitamin D daily is optimal.
Other supplements which may be helpful in a multivitamin include magnesium, potassium and vitamin K. Other food items and herbs which may be helpful are olive oil, sage, chamomile, green tea and onions.
An appealing idea I would not have thought of…
Wearing a weight vest and ankle weights
These measures are suggested in some circles as contributing to building stronger, denser bones. I can see how that would work, by putting extra weight on the bones to build your bone density – I have used ankle and arm weights in the past. This weight vest is commonly used by athletes and those pursuing physical fitness, which is something we should certainly be doing to help correct our Osteoporosis.
The idea is that you would start small, adding more weight as time goes by (it has many small pockets to insert more weights), or wearing the vest for longer. This weight vest is an option I will definitely consider in my quest to build stronger bones, and build more density in my spine.
My hips are less severe than my spine, as I spent a few years doing many squats and lunges – now I need to build up my spine!
It can be worn under looser fitting clothing, and is good for building strength as well! You can buy the small weights to add to the pockets here. I look forward to feeling the strength returning to my body!
Have you been for a bone density scan? What was your experience like? What treatment do you prefer for Osteoporosis?