For most of us, the closest familiarity we have with skeletons is the plastic ones we see at Halloween. You are probably not aware of how important the skeleton is to our most basic physical abilities. The skeleton is made of up of over 200 bones and those bones give our body structure, and provide protection for the brain, spinal cord and our internal organs. Osteoporosis is a danger to the integrity of those bones.
Osteoporosis is a bone disease that results when our body loses too much bone, makes too little bone, or both. This causes bones to become weak, and may cause them to break easily from a fall or, if the osteoporosis is advanced, even break with less vigorous stress, like a sneeze or a minor bump. The word “Osteoporosis” means “porous bone.” When normal healthy bone is viewed under a microscope it looks like a honeycomb, full of spaces. With osteoporosis, those spaces in the honeycomb are much larger than in healthy bone. Thus, bones with osteoporosis are not as dense or strong, and have an abnormal structure. Because the bones are less dense, they are less resistant to stresses and are more likely to break. According to Osteoporosis Canada, at least 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men will suffer an osteoporotic fracture in their lifetime.
We often refer to osteoporosis as “the silent thief” because there are no symptoms of the weakening of our bones. This process can become quite advanced without our ever being aware. Unfortunately, breaking a bone is often the first sign that we have osteoporosis. An earlier indicator is a loss of height and/or an increasingly rounded upper back. One of both of those signs may indicate asymptomatic loss of vertebral bone height in the spine.
As physiotherapists, we are often asked by patients what the difference is between osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Many folks misunderstand the distinctions between these two conditions and which one is responsible for their painful symptoms. Both are conditions involving changes to the bones, but osteoporosis is NOT painful until a fracture occurs. Osteoarthritis on the other hand, is a painful condition involving joints, which includes the bones, cartilage, and soft tissues around the joints. These two conditions can both be present in the body at the same time. For example, if a spinal compression fracture has occurred and a person also has arthritis in the spinal joints, there can be significant back pain and limited movement caused by both issues.
Osteoporosis in the early stages is best treated with exercise! Bones grow and strengthen in response to the regular daily stresses imposed on them by activities like walking, lifting, pulling and pushing. A regular program of the right types of exercise can limit the risk of advanced osteoporosis and fractures. A diet with adequate amounts of protein, calcium and vitamin D is also important. For those with advanced osteoporosis and a high fracture risk, there are medications that help to strengthen bone and increase bone density.
Postmenopausal women, and all men and women older than 65 are at risk for developing osteoporosis. Osteoporosis risk is also increased with many other health conditions. Additionally, prolonged use of many types of medication can significantly increase the risk of osteoporosis. Since the disease can become well advanced before you realize that you have it, it is important to arm yourself with knowledge of treatment and prevention BEFORE you develop a fracture or early indicators of possible osteoporosis. There are some excellent resources available to aid you in self-management by increasing your knowledge and providing guidelines for nutrition, exercise, medication and when to seek help and advice from a health care professional. Osteoporosis.ca is an excellent, user friendly website with abundant helpful, accurate information.
If you know you have osteoporosis, or are hoping to prevent it, especially if you have other painful, limiting conditions like osteoarthritis, a physiotherapist is your best ally in developing a safe, effective exercise program that will help you build bone strength. A physiotherapist will assess your unique situation and conditions, start you at an appropriate level of activity/exercise, help you manage any pain you are already experiencing, and guide you with evidence-based education. The physios at Best Health Physiotherapy are knowledgeable and experienced in treating individuals with osteoporosis. They can be your guide in helping you limit your risk and increase your bone strength.