What is Osteoporosis?

The word “osteoporosis” means bone (osteo) that is porous or filled with holes (porosis)—your bone mass is less dense than it should be. Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to weaken. This weakening of the bones can lead to rounded shoulders, loss of height and even painful fractures (broken bones). Osteoporosis itself is painless but the fractures that can occur because of it are painful.

Osteoporosis is not the same as osteoarthritis (ah-stee-oh-ar-THRY-tis), or OA. OA is a common form of arthritis that affects the joints. In OA, cartilage that covers the joints breaks down, causing pain and stiffness. In osteoporosis, the bones become weak.

There are usually no symptoms of osteoporosis—it is often found after a bone fractures or breaks. But there are risk factors you should be aware of. If you have one or more of the following risk factors, you are at greater risk of having osteoporosis and of breaking a bone.

You may be at risk for osteoporosis if you:

  • Are a woman, especially past menopause
  • Went through menopause early (before age 45) or have very irregular menstrual periods
  • Are thin or have a small frame
  • Have a family history of osteoporosis
  • Have a history of bone fractures after minor trauma (fractures that occur without a serious accident, such as falling)
  • Have an inflammatory form of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or lupus
  • Take medicines that reduce bone strength such as glucocorticoids, anticonvulsants (seizure medications) or heparin
  • Eat few calcium-rich foods, such as dairy foods
  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Drink more than two alcoholic beverages a day
  • Don’t exercise regularly
  • Are a man with low levels of testosterone

An early sign of osteoporosis is called osteopenia (ah-stee-oh-PEE-nee-ah), which means low bone mass. Osteopenia is detected by the studies that measure bone mass (DEXA scan or bone density test). In osteopenia, bone mass is lower than normal but not low enough to be diagnosed as osteoporosis.

Talk to your doctor about ways to reduce your risk and about having your bone density tested.

Since osteoporosis doesn’t cause any symptoms, you may not even be aware you have it until you:

  • break a bone
  • notice a loss in height
  • or find that your upper back bends forward

To determine if you have osteoporosis or are at risk for developing it, your doctor will ask you questions about your medical history, including:

  • Your overall health including any past fractures
  • Medications
  • Diet
  • Family history

He or she will examine you and may order the following tests:

  • Blood and urine tests to rule out other diseases that weaken bones
  • Bone density test (or DEXA scan) to measure bone mass and predict the risk of bone fracture.
  • X-rays of the bones if a fracture is suspected
  • Special CT scans that can measure bone density
  • Other laboratory tests to help rule out other osteoporosis factors or other diseases

Talk to your doctor about treatments for osteoporosis that may be best for you. Our doctors will help you consider possible side effects and risks associated with each treatment. Our goal is to find the treatment that works best for you and help prevent bone damage or disability.