Osteoporosis is a condition that affects the bones, causing them to become weak and fragile and more likely to break (fracture).
Osteoporosis is a condition that weakens bones, making them fragile and more likely to break.
It's a fairly common condition that affects around three million people in the UK. More than 300,000 people receive hospital treatment for fragility fractures (fractures that occur from standing height or less) every year as a result of osteoporosis.
Wrist fractures, hip fractures and fractures of the vertebrae (bones in the spine) are the most common type of breaks that affect people with osteoporosis. However, they can also occur in other bones, such as in the arm, ribs or pelvis.
There are usually no warnings you've developed osteoporosis and it's often only diagnosed when a bone is fractured after even minor falls.
Read more about the symptoms of osteoporosis.
What causes osteoporosis?
During childhood, bones grow and repair very quickly, but this process slows as you get older.
Bones stop growing in length between the ages of 16 and 18, but continue to increase in density until you're in your late 20s.
You gradually start to lose bone density from about 35 years of age. Women lose bone rapidly in the first few years after the menopause (when monthly periods stop and the ovaries stop producing an egg).
Losing bone is a normal part of the ageing process, but for some people it can lead to osteoporosis and an increased risk of fractures.
Other factors that increase your risk of developing osteoporosis include:
- inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD)
- conditions that affect the hormone-producing glands, such as an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) or an overactive parathyroid gland (hyperparathyroidism)
- a family history of osteoporosis, particularly history of a hip fracture in a parent
- long-term use of certain medications that affect bone strength or hormone levels, such as oral prednisolone
- malabsorption problems
- heavy drinking and smoking
Read more about the causes of osteoporosis.
If your doctor suspects you have osteoporosis, they can make an assessment using an online programme, such as FRAX or Q-Fracture. They may also refer you for a scan to measure your bone mineral density.
This type of scan is known as a DEXA (DXA) scan. It's a short, painless procedure and your bone mineral density can then be used to assess your fracture risk.
Read more about diagnosing osteoporosis.
Treatment for osteoporosis is based on treating and preventing fractures and using medication to strengthen bones.
The decision about what treatment you have – if any – will depend on your risk of fracture. This will be based on a number of factors, such as your age and the results of your DXA scan.
Read more about how osteoporosis is treated.
If you're at risk of developing osteoporosis, you should take steps to help keep your bones healthy. This may include:
- taking regular exercise
- healthy eating, including foods rich in calcium and vitamin D
- making lifestyle changes, such as giving up smoking and reducing your alcohol consumption
Read more about preventing osteoporosis.
Living with osteoporosis
To help you recover from a fracture, you can try using:
- hot and cold treatments such as warm baths and cold packs
- transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) – where a small battery-operated device is used to stimulate the nerves and reduce pain
- relaxation techniques
Speak to your GP or nurse if you're worried about living with a long-term condition. They may be able to answer any questions you have.
You may also find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor or psychologist or other people with the condition.
Read more about living with osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis develops slowly over several years. There are often no warning signs or symptoms until a minor fall or a sudden impact causes a bone fracture.
Osteoporosis develops slowly over several years.
There are often no warning signs or symptoms until a minor fall or a sudden impact causes a bone fracture.
Healthy bones should be able to withstand a fall from standing height, so a bone that breaks in these circumstances is known as a fragility fracture.
The most common injuries in people with osteoporosis are:
Sometimes a cough or sneeze can cause a rib fracture or the partial collapse of one of the bones of the spine.
In older people, a fractured bone can be serious and result in long-term disability. For example, a hip fracture may lead to long-term mobility problems.
Although a fracture is the first sign of osteoporosis, some older people develop the characteristic stooping (bent forward). It happens when the bones in the spine have fractured, making it difficult to support the weight of the body.
Is osteoporosis painful?
Osteoporosis isn't usually painful until it causes a fracture.
Although not always painful, spinal fractures are the most common cause of long-term (chronic) pain associated with osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is often diagnosed after a fracture caused by weakened bones. You may have a DEXA (DXA) scan to measure your bone mineral density.
Osteoporosis is often diagnosed after weakened bones have led to a fracture.
If you're at risk of developing osteoporosis, your GP may refer you for a bone mineral density scan, known as a dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA, or DXA) scan.
Normal X-rays are a useful way of identifying fractures, but they aren't a reliable method of measuring bone density.
DEXA (DXA) scan
A DEXA scan can be used to help diagnose osteoporosis. It's a quick, safe and painless procedure that usually takes about five minutes, depending on the part of the body being scanned.
The scan measures your bone mineral density and compares it to the bone mineral density of a healthy young adult and someone who's the same age and sex as you.
The difference between the density of your bones and that of a healthy young adult is calculated as a standard deviation (SD) and is called a T score.
Standard deviation is a measure of variability based on an average or expected value. A T score of:
- above -1 SD is normal
- between -1 and -2.5 SD is defined as decreased bone mineral density compared with peak bone mass
- below -2.5 is defined as osteoporosis
Although a bone density scan can help diagnose osteoporosis, your bone mineral density result isn't the only factor that determines your risk of fracturing a bone.
Your age, sex and any previous injuries will need to be taken into consideration before deciding whether you need treatment for osteoporosis.
Your doctor can help you take positive steps to improve your bone health. If you need treatment, they can also suggest the safest and most effective treatment plan for you.
Leading a healthy lifestyle is the best way to delay the onset of osteoporosis and slow the rate at which your bones become fragile.
Your genes are responsible for determining your height and the strength of your skeleton, but lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise influence how healthy your bones are.
Weight-bearing exercise and resistance exercise are particularly important for improving bone density and helping to prevent osteoporosis.
As well as aerobic exercise, adults aged 19 to 64 should also do muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week by working all the major muscle groups, including the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms.
If you've been diagnosed with osteoporosis, it's a good idea to talk to your GP or health specialist before starting a new exercise programme to make sure it's right for you.
Read more about the physical activity guidelines for adults and find out more about:
Weight-bearing exercises are exercises where your feet and legs support your weight. High-impact weight-bearing exercises, such as running, skipping, dancing, aerobics, and even jumping up and down on the spot, are all useful ways to strengthen your muscles, ligaments and joints.
When exercising, wear footwear that provides your ankles and feet with adequate support, such as trainers or walking boots.
Read more about choosing sports shoes and trainers.
People over the age of 60 can also benefit from regular weight-bearing exercise. This can include brisk walking, keep-fit classes or a game of tennis. Swimming and cycling aren't weight-bearing exercises, however.
Read more about the physical activity guidelines for older adults.
Resistance exercises use muscle strength, where the action of the tendons pulling on the bones boosts bone strength. Examples include press-ups, weightlifting or using weight equipment at a gym.
If you've recently joined a gym or haven't been for a while, your gym will probably offer you an induction. This involves being shown how to use the equipment and having exercise techniques recommended to you.
Always ask an instructor for help if you're not sure how to use a piece of gym equipment or how to do a particular exercise.
Read more about exercise and bone health.
Calcium is important for maintaining strong bones. Adults need 700mg a day, which you should be able to get from your daily diet. Calcium-rich foods include leafy green vegetables, dried fruit, tofu and yoghurt.
However, most vitamin D is made in the skin in response to sunlight. Short exposure to sunlight without wearing sunscreen (10 minutes twice a day) throughout the summer should provide you with enough vitamin D for the whole year.
Certain groups of people may be at risk of not getting enough vitamin D. These include:
- people who are housebound or particularly frail
- people with a poor diet
- people who keep covered up in sunlight because they wear total sun block or adhere to a certain dress code
- women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
If you're at risk of not getting enough vitamin D through your diet or lifestyle, you can take a vitamin D supplement. For adults, 10 micrograms a day of vitamin D is recommended.
The recommended amount for children is 7 micrograms for babies under six months, and 8.5 micrograms for children aged six months to three years. Talk to your GP for more information.
Other lifestyle factors that can help prevent osteoporosis include:
- quitting smoking – smoking is associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis
- limiting your alcohol intake – the recommended daily limit is 3-4 units of alcohol for men and 2-3 units for women; it's also important to avoid binge drinking
Having osteoporosis doesn't mean you'll definitely have a fracture. There are measures you can take to reduce your risk of a fall or break.
Your GP or nurse may be able to answer any questions you have about living with osteoporosis and can reassure you if you're worried.
You may also find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor or psychologist, or to someone at a specialist helpline. Your GP surgery will have information about these.
Some people find it helpful to talk to others with osteoporosis, either at a local support group or in an internet chat room.
Call 0845 450 0230 or 01767 472 721. You can also email them at email@example.com.
Recovering from a broken bone
Broken bones usually take six to eight weeks to recover. Having osteoporosis doesn't affect how long this takes. Recovery depends on the type of fracture you have. Some fractures heal easily, but others may require more intervention.
If you have a complicated wrist fracture or hip fracture, you may need an operation to make sure the bone is set properly. Hip replacements are often needed after hip fractures, and some people may lose mobility as a result of weakened bones.
Osteoporosis can cause a loss of height as a result of fractures in the spinal column. This means the spine is no longer able to support your body's weight and causes a hunched posture.
This can be painful when it occurs, but it may also lead to long-term (chronic) pain. Your GP or nurse may be able to help with this.
During the healing process, you may need the help of a physiotherapist or occupational therapist so you can make as full a recovery as possible.
Coping with pain
Everyone experiences pain differently, so what works for you may differ from what works for someone else.
There are a number of different ways of managing pain, including:
- heat treatment, such as warm baths or hot packs
- cold treatment, such as cold packs
- transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) – this is thought to reduce pain by stimulating the nerves
- simple relaxation techniques, massage or hypnosis
You can use more than one of these techniques at the same time to manage your pain – for example, you could combine medication, a heat pack and relaxation techniques.
Working and money
You should be able to continue to work if you have osteoporosis. It's very important that you remain physically active and have a fulfilled lifestyle.
This will help keep your bones healthy and stop you focusing too much on your potential health problems. However, if your work involves the risk of falling or breaking a bone, seek advice from your employer, GP and the National Osteoporosis Society about how to limit your risk of having an accident or injury that could lead to a bone break.
If you can't continue working, you may be eligible for disability benefits, such as the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). People over 65 who are severely disabled may qualify for a disability benefit called Attendance Allowance.
Help for carers
You may also be entitled to certain benefits if you care for someone with osteoporosis.
Read more about benefits for carers.
- National Osteoporosis Society: Welfare rights, benefits and services (PDF, 123kb)
- GOV.UK: Carers and disability benefits
- Care and support: Care, finance and the law
- Money Advice Service
Bob Rees was diagnosed with osteoporosis after collapsing in pain on a family holiday.
Bob Rees was diagnosed with osteoporosis after collapsing in pain on a family holiday.
"I was 43 when I was diagnosed with osteoporosis. I was on a family holiday in the Dominican Republic in June 2002 when I collapsed in agony. In March 2003, nine months later and after extensive tests, I was diagnosed with severe spinal osteoporosis.
"I remember my relief at being told that I didn't have bone cancer, as had been suspected, but my relief was shortlived when I was told that I had the bones of an 80-year-old.
"I turned to the National Osteoporosis Society (NOS) for support and I'm now an ambassador for the charity. I find that talking to other people with osteoporosis helps me deal with my own pain, and I advise anyone who has recently been diagnosed with osteoporosis to try to keep active. Don't sit back and give in. Small lifestyle changes, such as walking regularly, can help keep your bones healthy."