Everything you need to know about living well with osteoporosis
You may be wondering, what is osteoporosis? Below, we explore what causes osteoporosis, where to find further help for osteoporosis, and ways to live well with this condition. Remember, you are not alone, and there are many sources of support available to you.
Any medical information provided here is for informational purposes and does not replace medical advice given to you by a medical professional. If you are concerned that you may have any of the osteoporosis symptoms discussed below, please see your GP.
Osteoporosis is a disease of the bones in the body. It affects bone density, making bones weaker and more likely to fracture (break). Most people have no obvious symptoms of osteoporosis. It is a condition that you are unlikely to find out you have until breakage to a bone occurs through injury or accident. For example, you may have a minor fall that causes a fracture, and only upon investigation of this injury will a specialist identify that you have osteoporosis.
It’s a really common condition, with around 3 million people affected in the UK and, on average, over half a million people being treated for fractures due to osteoporosis each year. So remember, if you have been given an osteoporosis diagnosis, you are not alone, and there is osteoporosis support available to you.
Osteoporosis develops in both men and women, although women do have a higher risk because their bone density is naturally lower compared to men. Osteoporosis in men is not uncommon though.
There is osteoporosis treatment available, but there is currently no cure. As the condition develops, and without the right medication, a person’s bones may become so fragile that they fracture due to sudden movements, e.g. from a simple cough. If identified early though, most people living with osteoporosis will find it does not have too much effect on their daily life. Some people may even find that by changing their lifestyle (following an osteoporosis diet and doing osteoporosis exercises) or by undergoing treatment for osteoporosis, they can actually improve their bone health and reverse their diagnosis.
To find out more about osteoporosis, visit the NHS website.
Most people probably don’t realise that the bones in our bodies actually change and repair themselves in order to stay healthy and functional. Special cells called osteoclasts work to break down old bone tissue and new bone is built in its place by osteoblasts. However, as we grow older (from around the age of 35 years old) this process becomes disrupted and whilst older tissue is removed, newer bone takes longer to develop. This leads to the exterior of the bone becoming thinner, and the interior of the bone called the trabecular, which has a honeycomb structure, breaking down. This is all quite normal as we get older, but for people who experience the process more quickly and intensely, this is what causes osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis may develop for a number of reasons, and there are several osteoporosis risk factors which increase your chance of the condition developing.
These osteoporosis risk factors include:
• Menopause or hormonal imbalance in women
• Taking steroids (medically or recreationally)
• Lack of exercise
• Dietary deficiencies, e.g. a lack of calcium or vitamin D
• Being underweight or having an eating disorder
• Excessive drinking or alcoholism
• Family history - is osteoporosis hereditary? If a family member has a history of fractures, you may have a higher risk of developing the condition
Rare and unexplained, for more information, download the National Osteoporosis Society booklet ‘Pregnancy and osteoporosis’.
Usually caused by other conditions or having a disability. For more information, visit the National Osteoporosis Society website.
There are often few osteoporosis symptoms, which makes it difficult to detect. There are no obvious signs of osteoporosis that are easy to spot.
Osteoporosis causes people to have breakages in their bones – also known as fractures. A person with the condition may only find out they have it after experiencing a fracture. The fracture may be more severe than is usual after a low impact injury, for example, a stumble or fall. Experiencing a fracture can have short and long-term consequences, resulting in symptoms of discomfort, pain and temporary or permanent disability.
Bones heal in most cases, but depending on which bones are fractured, there may be longer-term issues and symptoms to deal with. For example, if a person breaks their hip, they are likely to need surgery to repair it and perhaps even a hip replacement.
If a person has osteoporosis of the spine, their spine may change shape and become more curved at the base of the neck. They may become a little shorter over time and have a stooping posture; this occurs due to vertebral crush fractures and usually causes pain of varying degrees.
For more information about osteoporosis symptoms and signs, visit the NHS website. The NHS also provides advice on how to tell if you have broken a bone. If you have any concerns that you are at risk of osteoporosis, or if you think you have a fracture, visit your GP or urgent care centre.
It can take some time before osteoporosis is diagnosed.This is because there are no easy to spot osteoporosis symptoms. If you attend hospital due to having a fracture, you may be tested for osteoporosis if your doctor thinks you are high risk, you fracture ‘easily’ or through a very minor injury, or if you have had fractures before. If your doctor thinks you may have osteoporosis, they will suggest you undergo some tests that will confirm a diagnosis.
You are likely to require a scan to check the density of your bones. For example, a DEXA (dual energy x-ray absorptiometry) scan. If you have a lower than normal bone density, you are likely to have osteoporosis or be at risk of it developing, which is called osteopenia. The tests conducted will compare your bone density level with data on what is considered a healthy bone density, of someone similar to you. If you undergo such a test, you will be given a score. If this is below -2.5, you are likely to be diagnosed with osteoporosis.
You may also undergo a FRAX or Q-Fracture risk assessment to predict your risk of having a fracture in the future.
You may also need to undergo blood tests to explore whether other conditions are causing your low bone density or fractures.
If you think you may have or be at risk of developing osteoporosis, speak to your GP.
For more information on how a diagnosis of osteoporosis is made, visit the National Osteoporosis Society website.
There is currently no cure for osteoporosis, but there is osteoporosis treatment available to help manage osteoporosis pain, treat fractures and help make bones stronger. You are also likely to be advised to undertake exercises and eat a healthy, balanced diet (read more about diet and exercise for osteoporosis later).
Treatment for a fracture will depend upon which bones are affected but will aim to put bones back into place and stop them from moving around, so they can start to heal; this usually involves a sling, cast, splint or brace, to support the bones. Some bones cannot be supported in this way, such as the rib cage, so have to heal on their own. Some bones require surgery to fix them with rods, pins or metal plates. You are likely to be given painkillers (e.g. paracetamol) or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to help manage the pain and inflammation whilst your bones heal.
There are many types of medication for osteoporosis you may be prescribed, which are designed to help slow down the degeneration of old bone, stimulate the building of new bone or a combination of these. Here are the most common ones:
• Teriparatide and parathyroid hormone
You are also likely to be recommended to take calcium and vitamin D supplements, which support bone development and strength.
Can osteoporosis be reversed? In a word, yes. It may take a little time to find a medication for osteoporosis that is suitable for you, as some do have side effects. After a lengthy period of taking medication, your doctor may ask that you have a break because the drugs you are taking have a long-lasting effect and your bone density has improved. Some people find that by changing their lifestyle through implementing exercises for osteoporosis and eating an osteoporosis diet, they are able to improve their bone strength to such a level that they are no longer considered to have the condition.
Traditionally, women going through the menopause were prescribed hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to help prevent or treat osteoporosis. Whilst still widely used, there are many alternative medications available now which have fewer potential risk factors compared to HRT, which is thought to increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer and other conditions. If you are living with postmenopausal osteoporosis, visit the NHS website for more information on HRT.
Research is continuing into further osteoporosis treatment and in understanding how bones are regenerated. The National Osteoporosis Society supports and invests in research projects..
To find out more about osteoporosis treatment, visit the Arthritis Research UK website
Learning that you have osteoporosis can be difficult. You may be wondering how it will affect your life now and in the future. Here, we consider practical information, such as osteoporosis products, why it is so important to have a healthy diet and programme of exercise for osteoporosis, and how it may affect your social life and employment.
Some people live relatively normally after receiving a diagnosis of osteoporosis and, although they may have to take medication to help strengthen bones, they feel able to continue living as they did prior to diagnosis. However, some people may experience challenges such as feeling anxious about having a fall or an injury that could lead to a fracture.
There are ways you can reduce your risk of having a fall, and the NHS provides lots of tips on making your home safer and avoiding falls.
Obviously, there is no way to completely avoid falling or injuring yourself, as accidents will always happen, but it may help you to feel that you are doing everything you can to reduce your risk. The National Osteoporosis Society provides a wealth of practical information about how to stay steady and feel more confident.
It is important to remember that some people are able to increase their bone strength through changing their eating and exercise habits.
• Buprenorphine (BuTrans) Transdermal Skin Patch
The healing process for people with osteoporosis is not hindered by the condition, so most fractures will heal in 6 to 12 weeks, depending on where the fracture is and how severe. If you have experienced a fracture that is affecting your ability to get around or to carry out daily tasks, there are services available to help you, for example, physiotherapy and occupational therapy.
If you are experiencing continuing pain after a fracture has healed, there are ways to help manage your pain, for example:
• TENS machine
• Massage therapy
• The Alexander Technique
At Healthcare Pro, we are experts in daily living aids, which are products designed to help you get back on your feet, regain your independence or stay mobile. There are many daily living aids available that may help you if you have a fracture caused by osteoporosis, or a permanent disability as a result of the condition.
Here, we suggest some osteoporosis products that may help with a variety of daily living tasks if you are living with fractures or pain caused by fractures, or if you want to help prevent falls around the home.
PLEASE NOTE: our Expert Advice Service can only give advice about equipment and products which may help you to live more independently. They cannot give any advice on medications or treatments for symptoms of this condition.
Most people with osteoporosis are able to work, but you may wish to discuss your condition with your employer. You may need to take sick leave from time to time, for example, if you experience a fracture or if you are experiencing pain. You may need to have appointments with your GP or healthcare team to discuss medication or test your bone density. You should discuss with your employer any issues that may affect your health, for example, you may need to adjust some of your tasks at work to avoid potential injury or falls. Advicenow provides information on your rights if you are unsure what your employer should be doing to support you.
The National Osteoporosis Society also provides advice about osteoporosis and employment.
It is important for everybody to exercise regularly. Our bodies need exercise to operate effectively and prevent ill health. It is essential to exercise for osteoporosis prevention and as part of your osteoporosis treatment plan.
If you have been given a diagnosis of osteoporosis, you may feel apprehensive about beginning an exercise regime in case you injure yourself. The benefits of exercise will usually far outweigh the risks.
Your GP may be able to refer you to a physiotherapy service, where a professional physiotherapist can instruct you on the best osteoporosis exercises to undertake. You are likely to be given weight bearing exercises for osteoporosis, such as resistance exercise (lifting weights or your own body weight) that strengthens your muscles and bones.
Your physiotherapist will be able to advise if there are osteoporosis exercises to avoid. For example, if you are at high risk of fractures, you may be advised against high impact weight-bearing exercised, such as aerobics or jogging.
Some research suggests that yoga and Pilates are really good exercises to prevent osteoporosis because they improve flexibility and strength.
Visit the NHS website to read a real-life story about how exercise and eating healthily can improve osteoporosis.
It is important for everybody to eat a healthy, balanced diet, and especially important if you have a long-term health condition. You should ensure you have a balanced diet that contains all the food groups to give your body the nutrition it needs. An osteoporosis diet should include a variety of foods from the main food groups, i.e. fruit and vegetables, carbohydrates, protein and dairy. If you need advice on eating a balanced diet, The Eatwell Guide developed by Public Health England is available to download for free.
It is especially important to include at least the recommended daily allowance of calcium in a diet for osteoporosis. The recommended amount for an adult is 700mg per day. Calcium is essential for creating strong bones. Calcium can be found in seeds, dairy (such as cheese and yoghurt), nuts, lentils, leafy greens, and oily fish (salmon).
You may be advised to follow an osteoporosis diet plan that restricts certain foods and drinks that may have an adverse effect on the absorption of calcium, for example, salt, alcohol and caffeine. Research has also suggested that in an osteoporosis diet, coke or fizzy soda drinks containing phosphorous may contribute to people not absorbing enough calcium.
There are a large number of other vitamins and minerals that contribute to healthy bones, such as magnesium, zinc and vitamin B. Some people choose to take osteoporosis supplements to ensure they are getting enough vitamins and minerals. The best way to do this though, is to eat a wide variety of healthy foods; this is important in preventing osteoporosis developing. For more information on vitamins and minerals that are essential to bone health, visit the National Osteoporosis Society website.
We recommend talking to your GP or specialist before undertaking any osteoporosis diets.
We hope this guide to osteoporosis has been helpful to you, whether you have the condition yourself or know someone who has it. The first port of call if you are concerned about your health, should always be your GP. Osteoporosis is quite common, and the condition can improve with the right treatment and lifestyle choices. There are many healthcare professionals available to help manage your condition. There is a wealth of advice and information available online and through various charitable organisations and the NHS. You may find it useful to talk to other people affected by osteoporosis, to share your experiences, learn from others, get tips and advice about diet and exercise, and discuss treatment options and successes. Here, we point you to support groups for osteoporosis and other online resources that offer further information and advice.
The National Osteoporosis Society provides a helpline run by specialist nurses:
Other osteoporosis support groups:
AGE UK – information on healthcare conditions and advice about finances, healthcare and much more
Arthritis Research UK – provides information on a variety of musculoskeletal conditions
Menopause Matters – useful information on experiencing the menopause and menopausal osteoporosis
National Osteoporosis Society - the leading UK charity for Osteoporosis providing information, support and research
NHS – the essential guide to medical conditions, their diagnosis and symptoms
Pain Support – provides resources and support for people living with chronic pain
Although we always try to explain things as simply and as clearly as possible, sometimes it’s necessary to use the correct medical terminology. Medical terms are often known for being tricky to pronounce and if you’re not an expert in the subject, they can also be a little difficult to understand. Below, we’ve put together a list of terms used on this page along with a brief explanation of what they mean to help make your understanding of osteoporosis as straightforward as possible.
– the process of inserting needles into the skin and/or muscles to stimulate nerves
– a disorder that means a person is dependent on alcohol or misuses it to the point where it affects their health
– a drug that slows the thinning of bones in the body, prescribed for people with osteoporosis of some types of cancer
– the strength of your bones
Buprenorphine (BuTrans) Transdermal Skin Patch
– administers opioids to relieve chronic pain
– a naturally produced hormone that slows the depletion of bone
– a professional method of relieving pain and restoring spinal and muscular function using spinal manipulations
– a medication that contains paracetamol and codeine phosphate
– a disorder of the immune system where the body reacts to gluten in wheat, rye and barley
– an opioid pain relief medication
– an injection drug treatment for osteoporosis that reduces the risk of broken bones
DEXA (dual energy x-ray absorptiometry)
– a scan to test bone density, similar to an X-ray
– the serious illness which may take many forms, but which usually means a person changes their eating habits drastically in order to change their body image, to a point where it damages their body and health
– a diagnostic tool that helps assess the risk of bone fractures, providing a probability score for a ten year period.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
– treats women who are experiencing adverse effects of menopause, by replacing hormones that are declining, mainly oestrogen
– specialist exercises carried out in water to produce a therapeutic effect
– a surgical procedure in women that removes the womb and cervix, and sometimes the fallopian tubes and ovaries
– a non-steroidal drug that reduces the hormones released when there are inflammation and pain in the body
– used to treat stress, discomfort and pain around the body, which focuses on physically manipulating soft tissue such as muscles
– the decline of oestrogen that happens to women around 45 years of age, bringing the end of periods and many other symptoms
– the practice of living in the moment and accepting thoughts and sensations, rather than fighting against them – often uses meditative techniques
– a drug used to treat inflammation of the muscles and joints
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
– a pain relieving medication that helps reduce inflammation and is often used for people with arthritis or musculoskeletal aches and pains.
– the practice of assisting people to achieve their full potential and overcome difficulties, by looking at practical solutions, equipment and techniques.
– cells in the body that make new bone
– cells in the body that work to remove old bone
– the practice of manipulating body tissue to help the body work smoothly
– a pain relieving medication that reduces fever and mild pain
– a naturally occurring hormone in the body, which controls the amount of calcium found in the bloodstream, and which can be given as a synthetic treatment to reduce the risk of osteoporosis developing.
– a mineral in the body which works with calcium to build bones
– the practice of restoring movement, function and reducing discomfort or pain due to ill health, disability or injury, often through manual therapy such as massage, exercise and advice
– an assessment tool based on algorithms, which asks questions about lifestyle and health to ascertain the likelihood of a person developing osteoporosis or experiencing a bone fracture
– a drug treatment that provides the same effects as oestrogen in the body
– a complementary therapy that massages and manipulates the soles of the feet, with the belief that there are pressure points on the feet that correspond with parts of the body
– drugs that are prescribed for a variety of health reasons and which affect how the body metabolises key vitamins and minerals, leading to possible bone loss
– Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation carried out by a small device with electrodes that attach to the skin, which delivers electrical impulses to areas of the body that are painful, to reduce pain signals and relax muscles
– a medication that helps treat osteoporosis by simulating the hormone in the body that regulates calcium
The Alexander Technique
– helps change long-standing habits such as poor posture, to naturally align the body and reduce discomfort
– pain relief drug in the narcotic or opioid family
– the spongy bone at the ends of long bones, which is easiest to fracture
Vertebral crush fractures
– a collapsed bone in the spine