Osteoporosis is a disease defined by reduced bone mass and degeneration of bone tissue. The weakening of the bones increases the risk of bone fractures especially in the hip, spine, and wrist, and can affect people of any age group.
When seen through a microscope, bones affected by osteoporosis have more holes and spaces between the bone tissues than healthy bones, making them less dense, leaving them weak and more prone to injuries like fractures.
Osteoporosis is widespread in America with roughly 54 million adults aged 50 and older diagnosed with low bone mass and density. Osteoporosis is twice as common in women than in men, and the loss of bone integrity usually goes unnoticed without symptoms until a fracture occurs.
What Causes Osteoporosis?
Our bones are continuously regenerating themselves. In youth, our bodies create new bone more rapidly than it can be broken down, allowing bone mass to increase until it peaks in one’s late teens and early 20s. However, as people get older, the rate of bone loss outpaces the rate of new bone tissue creation.
The likelihood of developing osteoporosis is partly contingent upon the amount of bone mass people are able to accumulate in their youth. The greater one’s peak bone mass, the higher the bone reserve one has and the lower the chances of developing osteoporosis later on.
Age, sex, race, lifestyle, body type, and medical history can all impact one’s risk of developing osteoporosis, in particular:
- Women are much more prone to acquire osteoporosis than men
- Older people are at greatest risk
- People of white or Asian descent have a higher likelihood of contracting the disease
- A family history of osteoporosis comes with higher risk
- Adults possessing smaller body frames are more likely to develop osteoporosis
People with eating disorders or who are underweight may have weaker bones than other adults. The bones of patients who have undergone certain stomach or gastrointestinal surgery may have problems absorbing nutrients.
Lifestyle choices can influence the onset of osteoporosis; people who lead a sedentary way of life, who consume excessive amounts of alcohol, and who smoke are at higher risk. Unhealthy diets with insufficient calcium intake over the long-term can hasten the onset of osteoporosis. Low calcium is a leading factor in reduced bone mass and heightened risk of fracture.
Steroid medication can be a lifeline for patients suffering from chronic pain and other illnesses. However, long-term use of corticosteroid medication, such as prednisone and cortisone, can inhibit bone regeneration and result in bone loss.
Osteoporosis has also been linked with certain medicines taken to treat or limit:
- Gastric reflux
- Transplant rejection
Symptoms of Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is known as the ‘silent’ thief. Usually, there are no noticeable signs of osteoporosis in its early stages. However, as the disease gradually depletes the bones, one may experience:
- Back pain caused by fractured or collapsed vertebra
- Gradual reduction in height
- A rounded posture
- Unexpected bone fractures that occur rather easily
Diet and Osteoporosis
Diet has a key role to play in fending off the development of osteoporosis or curtailing its advancement once diagnosed. Calcium and vitamin D are vital for bone health and integrity; calcium is a crucial component in healthy bones, and vitamin D is indispensable for the body’s efficient absorption of calcium.
The following foods are good sources of calcium:
- Dairy products such as low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese
- Canned sardines and salmon
- Broccoli, collard greens, kale, tofu, almonds, and garbanzo beans
Many foods fortified with calcium and vitamin D include orange juice, breakfast cereals, bread, and non-dairy milk. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines can also provide rich sources of vitamin D.
People who get their calcium from natural food sources may need to enhance their intake of vitamin D through multivitamins or supplements to achieve their optimal level. However, food already enriched with calcium is also normally fortified with vitamin D.
Other foods that may provide a boost to the bones include olive oil, soybeans, blueberries and foods abundant in omega-3s such as fish oil and flaxseed oil. Overall, eating a well-balanced diet including dairy, fish, fruits, and vegetables often provides more than enough daily nutrients.
The Role of Exercise
Exercise is essential for patients living with osteoporosis to build and maintain bone strength and to limit the risk of bone fractures. Similar to muscles, bones activate and grow when they are sufficiently and properly stressed. Bearing more weight than normal catalyzes bones’ natural regeneration and vibrant properties.
Some of the benefits exercise provides to people with osteoporosis include:
- Increased muscle mass
- Enhanced balance and coordination to help prevent unnecessary falls
- Reinforced and improved posture to reduce the risk of spine fractures
- Prevention of bone loss
Physical Therapy and Osteoporosis
Physical therapy is a dynamic and valuable non-surgical treatment that can help prevent and treat osteoporosis. A physical therapist teaches exercises to boost bone health and help restore healthy mobility, function, and bone vitality, to limit one’s chances of suffering an unwanted bone fracture. Physical therapy can also contribute to accelerating the recovery from an osteoporosis-related bone break.
A physical therapist will tailor a program based on an individual’s unique needs and circumstances, which may include:
- Bone-strengthening and weight-bearing exercises such as walking and jogging
- Resistance training such as weightlifting, yoga, and swimming
- Balance-enhancing exercises
- Postural adjustments to remove unwanted stress off the spine
- Changes in the home and office to support a successful recovery
- Tips for engaging safely in everyday activities such as getting up out of bed and lifting heavier objects
- Education and awareness on which types of exercise to avoid
Vital bones start with a healthy and active lifestyle. Physical therapy can be a proactive and effective treatment method to help thwart the debilitating effects of osteoporosis.