Osteoporosis is low bone mass coupled with an increased risk of fracture. It's often confused with osteoarthritis, which is a condition of the joints that causes pain, stiffness and sometimes swelling. Unlike osteoarthritis, osteoporosis does not cause pain until there are bone fractures.
Most commonly, osteoporosis affects older women who fall and fracture a hip or a wrist or suffer from compression fractures of the spine. While thin, elderly Caucasian women are at the highest risk, there are many other people of all ages who might be at risk for osteoporosis.
There are several things that can affect your bone mass. Loss of estrogen in women is the most common reason for bone loss. This is due to menopause, both natural and surgical, where either the ovaries no longer produce estrogen or the functioning ovaries are removed for one reason or another. Also, breast cancer patients who have been treated with aromatase inhibitors, medicines that block the effects of estrogen in the body, can lose bone mass.
Also, men and women of any age who have taken steroids such as prednisone for extended periods will lose bone mass due to the steroid effect.
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Men who have been treated for prostate cancer with androgen-blocking agents also can suffer bone loss. Smokers and people who are underweight have a higher risk of bone loss as well.
With the loss of bone mass, fractures can occur more easily, and conditions that can lead to minor injuries can predispose patients with low bone mass to a fracture. Individuals at risk for falling are naturally the most at risk for fractures.
Many things can contribute to falling, including taking certain medications that lead to dizziness or unsteadiness, previous stroke, generalized weakness and movement disorders, such as Parkinson's disease or arthritis, that can lead to joint stiffness and unsteadiness.
You can avoid osteoporosis and subsequent fractures by keeping a healthy weight, doing weight-bearing exercises, eating calcium-rich foods and getting a healthy dose of sunlight daily.
If you fall into any of the risk categories mentioned above, you should see a doctor for an assessment. There is a special test called a DEXA scan or bone-density test that can assess whether you have bone loss. Your doctor also can determine your risk of fracture.
If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis, don't worry. There are many treatments available for this condition.