Osteoporosis is a common disease in Australia with 1.2 million people estimated to have osteoporosis. It affects both men and women and is most common in adults over 50. The disease occurs when bone loses minerals, such as calcium, more quickly than the body can replace them. This makes bones thinner and less dense and as they become more brittle, the risk of fracture increases. A fracture may occur after even a minor injury due to the reduced bone density. Any bone can be affected by osteoporosis but the most common sites are the hip, spine and wrist. Osteoporosis usually has no symptoms until a fracture occurs. Consequently it is often referred to as the ‘silent disease’. Which is why is it important that osteoporosis is detected as early as possible to ensure bone health is managed to prevent fractures.
Women are at greater risk of developing osteoporosis because of the rapid decline in oestrogen levels during menopause. When oestrogen levels decrease, bones lose calcium and other minerals at a much faster rate. As a result a bone loss of approximately 2% per year occurs for several years after the menopause. Other risk factors for osteoporosis include a family history, low dietary calcium and vitamin D intake, long term use of corticosteroids and other medications, thyroid conditions, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease and chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, liver or kidney disease. Life style factors including smoking, high alcohol intake and a sedentary lifestyle are also of concern.
So how do we diagnose this ‘silent disease’? Your GP will review your risk factors and send you for a bone density scan. It is a simple scan that measures the density of your bones at the hip and lower spine. You lie flat on a table and the machine passes over your body. The process takes approximately 15 minutes. Your GP will then interpret the result and you will have a diagnosis of normal bone density, reduced bone density, referred to as osteopenia, or extremely low bone density with is osteoporosis.
The good news is that treatment is available and reduced bone density is reversible with increased calcium and vitamin D intake and appropriate weight bearing exercises. If you have osteoporosis you will offered either regular medication or a 6 monthly injection. So the sooner you find out if you have low bone density or osteoporosis the better! Don’t wait until you have that first fracture. Go and speak to your doctor about your risk factors and organise a bone density scan.
Author – Dr. Freyja Page
MB,BS (London), DCH
© Townsville & Suburban Medical Practice, 2015.
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