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Osteoporosis is a condition defined by loss of bone density. This loss of density in the bones makes them weak and more prone to fracture with relatively minor trauma, such as a fall.  When the spinal bones, called vertebrae, are weakened, they can collapse without any trauma causing significant back pain. Bones can lose calcium and weaken gradually over time. If the condition is found early on, treatment can prevent it from getting worse.

The most common way to diagnose osteoporosis is by using a special type of x-ray test called a bone mineral density (BMD) test. One type of such a test is the Dual Energy x-ray Absorptiometry, which is often shortened to DEXA scan.  The DEXA scan will compare your bone density with other people of the same gender and age. If your bone density falls below a certain number, you are said to have osteopenia. If bone loss is more severe, you are diagnosed with osteoporosis. Those with osteopenia are felt to be on a path that can lead to osteoporosis. It is estimated that approximately 34 million Americans have osteopenia and that another 10 million have progressed to osteoporosis. This adds up to more than half of all those over age 50.

There are several risk factors for osteoporosis. Females are much more prone to it. Out of the estimated 10 million Americans with osteoporosis, eight million are women. Risk increases dramatically after the menopause due to the loss of estrogen. Men with low testosterone levels and younger women who do not have regular periods can be at risk. A family history of osteoporosis or broken bones increases your risk. A diet low in calcium and Vitamin D will increase your risk, as will a very high intake of protein and sodium. Smoking increases your risk as does lack of exercise. Those who weigh less than 155 pounds are at increased risk. Those using certain medications, such as steroids or seizure medications, on a long-term basis are also at higher risk.

There are no symptoms of bone loss prior to having a fracture, so screening is recommended.  The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all women over 65 have a DEXA scan, as well as those over 60 with risk factors. Women over 40 who have had a fracture and anyone on long term steroids should also be tested. If you have broken a bone from a simple fall, you should discuss osteoporosis treatment with your physician.

To prevent bone loss, everyone over 50 should be getting at least 1200 milligrams of calcium a day, along with 400 to 800 International Units of Vitamin D through diet or supplements. Everyone in that age group should participate in regular, weight-bearing exercise. Those who smoke should stop (for a multitude of reasons). Once the diagnosis is made, there are a number of treatment options.  In addition to continuing the good health habits described above, there are several prescription medications which can slow bone loss. The doctor can review these options and find the most appropriate one for you.

It is estimated that nearly 300,000 people a year are hospitalized for a hip fracture. Of those, nearly one quarter will die within a year from the complications that develop from the resulting inactivity. While women are more likely to have a hip fracture, the death rate is twice as high for men. For many, a fractured hip will lead to placement in a long term care facility. Untreated osteoporosis can have serious consequences. If you are at risk, please consult your physician.

If you need a physician, consult the physician search or call Hunterdon Medical Center’s Physician Referral Service at 1-800-511-4462.

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