Osteoporosis Treatment at Penn Medicine
Osteoporosis is the thinning of bone tissue and loss of bone density over time. It occurs when the body fails to form enough new bone, when too much old bone is reabsorbed by the body, or both. Osteoporosis is the most common type of bone disease.
Researchers estimate that about 1 out of 5 American women over the age of 50 have osteoporosis. About half of all women over the age of 50 will fracture their hip, wrist, or vertebra (bones of the spine) because of osteoporosis.
The minerals calcium and phosphate are essential for normal bone formation. Throughout its youth, the body uses these minerals to produce bones. Bone production and bone tissue may suffer in people who do not get enough calcium, or if their body does not absorb enough calcium from the diet.
As the body ages, calcium and phosphate may be reabsorbed back into the body from the bones, which makes the bone tissue weaker. This can result in brittle, fragile bones that are more prone to fractures, even without injury.
Bone loss usually occurs gradually over years. Many times, people suffer a bone fracture before becoming aware that the disease is present. By the time a fracture occurs, the disease is in its advanced stages and damage is severe.
The leading cause of osteoporosis is the drop in estrogen experienced by women at the time of menopause, and a drop in testosterone in men. Women over age 50 and men over age 70 are at higher risk for osteoporosis.
Other causes include:
- Being confined to a bed
- Chronic rheumatoid arthritis, chronic kidney disease, eating disorders
- Taking corticosteroid medications (prednisone, methylprednisolone) every day for more than 3 months, or taking some antiseizure drugs
White women, especially those with a family history of osteoporosis, have a greater than average risk of developing osteoporosis. Other risk factors include:
- Absence of menstrual periods (amenorrhea) for long periods of time
- Drinking a large amount of alcohol
- Family history of osteoporosis
- History of hormone treatment for prostate cancer or breast cancer
- Low body weight
- Too little calcium in the diet
There are no symptoms in the early stages of osteoporosis. Symptoms occurring late in the disease include:
- Bone pain or tenderness
- Fractures with little or no trauma
- Loss of height (as much as 6 inches) over time
- Low back pain due to fractures of the vertebrae
- Neck pain due to fractures of the vertebrae
- Stooped posture or kyphosis, also called a "dowager's hump"
Bone mineral density testing, called densitometry or DEXA scan, measures how much bone a person has. Physicians use this test to predict the risk of bone fractures in the future.
Quantitative computed tomography (QCT), a special type of spine CT that shows loss of bone mineral density, may be used in some cases.
In severe cases of osteoporosis, a spine or hip X-ray may show fracture or collapse of the spinal bones. Simple X-rays of bones are not very accurate in predicting the likelihood of osteoporosis.
Blood and urine tests can determine if osteoporosis is thought to be due to a medical condition, rather than simply the usual bone loss seen with older age.
The goals of osteoporosis treatment are to:
- Control pain from the disease.
- Slow down or stop bone loss.
- Prevent bone fractures with medicines that strengthen bone.
- Minimize the risk of falls that might cause fractures.
There are several different treatments for osteoporosis, including lifestyle changes and a variety of medications.