What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a bone disorder. Bone loss happens when the body absorbs more bone than it can create
Osteoporosis is a bone disorder. Bone loss happens when the body absorbs more bone than it can create

Osteoporosis is a bone disorder. It weakens your bone density, or the amount of bone tissue in your body, and puts you at a higher risk of fractures. Weak bones break easily, even from a simple fall. Osteoporosis is one main cause of spine, hip, pelvis, and wrist fractures in older people. 

This condition is often associated with women but can also affect men. Nearly 54 million Americans have low bone mass, the precursor to osteoporosis

The body is constantly reabsorbing old bone and creating tissue. To keep bones healthy, there must be a balance of both old and new bone. Bone loss happens when the body absorbs more bone than it can create. Some research suggests one in two women and one in four men over 50 will suffer a bone fracture due to osteoporosis.

Symptoms of osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is often referred to as a "silent disease" because you can't feel bone loss or tell if you have weak bones until you break something. Symptoms include bone fractures that occur:

During a daily activity that wouldn't normally lead to a broken bone.

After a fall from standing height. 

As a result of normal movement, like bending, lifting, or even coughing

If you notice that you’re getting shorter or your upper spine is curving and causing you to hunch over, see your doctor as soon as possible. It could be a vertebral fracture in the spine. 

Types of osteoporosis

There are two types of osteoporosis: primary and secondary.

Primary osteoporosis

This type of bone loss happens as you age and your bones continue to deteriorate. Hormones play a role, too. Women who are post-menopausal often experience significant bone loss. This is because the female body doesn't produce as much estrogen after menopause

Men are at risk for osteoporosis as well. A blood protein called globulin decreases testosterone and estrogen levels, which may contribute to bone loss. 

Secondary osteoporosis

Certain diseases and medications can create an imbalance in bone minerals and sex hormones. Inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis are treated with glucocorticoids, a type of steroid hormone, which are linked to drug-induced osteoporosis. Some studies have shown bone mineral density (BMD) to decline within three to six months of starting glucocorticoid therapy.


Osteoporosis Super-Foods for Strong Bones With Pictures See Slideshow

Causes of osteoporosis

The main cause of osteoporosis is bone loss due to a drop in your body's estrogen levels. Estrogen is a hormone that helps build and maintain your bones. The most common cause of estrogen loss in women is menopause

Other factors that may increase your risk include: 

  • Sex:

    Women are more likely to develop osteoporosis. In addition to declining estrogen levels, they have smaller bones and lower peak bone mass than men. A man's risk increases after the age of 70. 
  • Age:

    Bone loss occurs faster as you age, as your body doesn't replace bone tissue as quickly. 
  • Race:

    White and Asian women and white men are at the highest risk. 
  • Genetics:

    Research suggests your risk for bone loss and fractures is higher if one of your parents has osteoporosis. 
  • Diet & Lifestyle Choices:

    If you don't get enough calcium or vitamin D, you have a higher risk of bone loss. Smoking and heavy drinking also contribute.
  • Medical Conditions:

    Endocrine and hormonal diseases, gastrointestinal issues, certain cancers, anorexia, or HIV/AIDS can increase your osteoporosis risk.

Diagnosis for osteoporosis

Bone loss isn't easy to detect, but osteoporosis is a disease that can be prevented and treated. An early diagnosis is often the best defense. The most common way to measure your bone tissue is through a bone mineral density (BMD) test. This is a special machine that detects the amount of mineral in a certain area of bone.

BMD tests are done on different bones in your body, including your: 

  • Hips
  • Spine
  • Forearm, between the elbow and wrist
  • Wrist
  • Heel 
  • Finger 

The test is easy and painless, and the results can help your doctor make recommendations to protect your bone health and prevent bone loss.

Treatments for osteoporosis

Treating osteoporosis involves both lifestyle changes and medications. You can help prevent further bone loss by:

  • Exercising, specifically with weight-bearing activities like walking or low-impact aerobics
  • Drinking less alcohol
  • Quitting smoking
  • Eating a diet high in calcium and vitamin D 

If you already have osteoporosis, your doctor may prescribe medicine to prevent more bone loss or build new bone mass, including: 

  • Bisphosphonates, which help build bone mass. 
  • Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) to slow the rate of bone loss after menopause
  • Denosumab, an injection that can decrease bone breakdown and improve bone strength.
  • Menopausal hormone therapy, at low doses, can reduce menopausal symptoms and prevent bone loss. 
  • Teriparatide, an injectable form of human parathyroid hormone, which helps the body create new bone faster. 

All prescriptions have risks. Talk to your doctor to determine if taking osteoporosis medication is a good choice for your body. 


What is another medical term for osteoporosis? See Answer

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Medically Reviewed on 1/14/2021
MedLine Plus: "What causes bone loss?"

National Institutes of Health: "Osteoporosis Overview."

National Osteoporosis Foundation: "Diagnosis Information." National Osteoporosis Foundation: "What is Osteoporosis and What Causes It?"

Pharmacy & Therapeutics: "Osteoporosis: A Review of Treatment Options."

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health: "Osteoporosis."