Medical Encyclopedia


Medical Encyclopedia

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Contents of this page:


Bone density scan
Bone density scan
Hip fracture
Hip fracture
Vitamin D source
Vitamin D source
Calcium benefit
Calcium benefit
Calcium source
Calcium source
Bone-building exercise
Bone-building exercise
Changes in spine with age
Changes in spine with age

Alternative Names    Return to top

Thin bones

Definition    Return to top

Osteoporosis is the thinning of bone tissue and loss of bone density over time.

Causes    Return to top

Osteoporosis is the most common type of bone disease. An estimated 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, as well as another 18 million who have low bone mass, or osteopenia, which may eventually lead to osteoporosis if not treated.

Researchers estimate that about 1 out of 5 American women over the age of 50 have osteoporosis. About half of all women over the age of 50 will have a fracture of the hip, wrist, or vertebra (bones of the spine).

Osteoporosis occurs when the body fails to form enough new bone, when too much old bone is reabsorbed by the body, or both.

Calcium and phosphate are two minerals that are essential for normal bone formation. Throughout youth, your body uses these minerals to produce bones. If you do not get enough calcium, or if your body does not absorb enough calcium from the diet, bone production and bone tissues may suffer.

As you age, calcium and phosphate may be reabsorbed back into the body from the bones, which makes the bone tissue weaker. This can result in brittle, fragile bones that are more prone to fractures, even without injury.

Usually, the loss occurs gradually over years. Many times, a person will have a fracture before becoming aware that the disease is present. By the time this occurs, the disease is in its advanced stages and damage is severe.

The leading causes of osteoporosis are a drop in estrogen in women at the time of menopause and a drop in testosterone in men. Women, especially those over age 50, get osteoporosis more often than men.

Other causes include:

White women, especially those with a family history of osteoporosis, have a greater-than-average risk of developing osteoporosis. Other risk factors include:

Symptoms    Return to top

There are no symptoms in the early stages of the disease.

Symptoms occurring late in the disease include:

Exams and Tests    Return to top

Bone mineral density testing (specifically a densitometry or DEXA scan) measures how much bone you have. This test has become the gold standard for osteoporosis evaluation. For specific information on such testing, see bone density test.

A spine CT can show loss of bone mineral density. Quantitative computed tomography (QCT) can evaluate bone density. However, it is not as available and is more expensive than a DEXA scan.

In severe cases, a spine or hip x-ray may show fracture or collapse of the spinal bones. However, simple x-rays of bones are not very accurate in predicting whether someone is likely to have osteoporosis.

You may need other blood and urine tests if your osteoporosis is thought to be due to a medical condition, rather than simply the usual bone loss seen with older age.

Treatment    Return to top

The goals of osteoporosis treatment are to:

There are several different treatments for osteoporosis, including a variety of medications.


Bisphosphonates are a type of drug used for both the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. Several bisphosphonates are approved for the treatment of osteoporosis in the United States, including alendronate (Fosamax), ibandronate (Boniva), and risedronate (Actonel). Most are taken by mouth, usually once a week or once a month. Bisphosphonates given through a vein (intravenously) are taken less often.


Calcitonin is a medicine that slows the rate of bone loss and relieves bone pain. It comes as a nasal spray or injection. The main side effects are nasal irritation from the spray form and nausea from the injectable form.

While calcitonin slows bone loss and reduces the risk of fractures, it appears to be less effective than bisphosphonates.


Estrogens are still used to prevent osteoporosis but are not approved to treat a woman who has already been diagnosed with the condition.

Sometimes, if estrogen has helped a woman, and she cannot take other options for preventing or treating osteoporosis, the doctor may recommend she continue using hormone therapy. If you are considering taking hormone therapy to prevent osteoporosis, discuss the risks with your doctor.

Over the past decade, several major studies evaluated the health benefits and the risks of hormone therapy, including the risk of developing breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots. Evidence from these studies raised concerns for an increased risk for stroke, heart disease, breast cancer, and blood clots, depending on several factors that include the types of hormones used

Some women may still wish to consider hormone therapy for short-term treatment of menopausal symptoms. The key is to weigh the risks associated with taking hormone therapy against a particular woman's risk of heart disease or osteoporosis without taking hormone therapy. Other factors to consider include:

Every woman is different. Your doctor should be aware of your entire medical history when considering hormone therapy.


Teriparatide (Forteo) is approved in the United States for the treatment of postmenopausal women who have severe osteoporosis and are considered at high risk for fractures. The medicine is given through daily shots underneath the skin. You can give yourself the shots at home.


Raloxifene (Evista) is used for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. Raloxifene is similar to the breast cancer drug tamoxifen. Raloxifene can reduce the risk of spinal fractures by almost 50%. However, it does not appear to prevent other fractures, including those in the hip. It may have protective effects against heart disease and breast cancer, though more studies are needed.

The most serious side effect of raloxifene is a very small risk of blood clots in the leg veins (deep venous thrombosis) or in the lungs (pulmonary embolus).


Regular exercise can reduce the likelihood of bone fractures associated with osteoporosis. Some of the recommended exercises include:

Avoid any exercise that presents a risk of falling.


Get at least 1,200 milligrams per day of calcium, and 800 - 1,000 international units of vitamin D3. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium.Your doctor may recommend a supplement to give you the calcium and vitamin D you need.

Follow a diet that provides the proper amount of calcium, vitamin D, and protein. While this will not completely stop bone loss, it will guarantee that a supply of the materials the body uses to form and maintain bones is available.

High-calcium foods include:


Quit smoking, if you smoke. Also limit alcohol intake. Too much alcohol can damage your bones, as well as put you at risk for falling and breaking a bone.


It is critical to prevent falls. Avoid sedating medications and remove household hazards to reduce the risk of fractures. Make sure your vision is good. Other ways to prevent falling include:


Your response to treatment can be monitored with a series of bone mineral density measurements taken every 1-2 years. However, such monitoring is controversial and expensive.

Women taking estrogen should have routine mammograms, pelvic exams, and Pap smears.


There are no surgeries for treating osteoporosis itself. However, a procedure called vertebroplasty can be used to treat any small fractures in your spinal column due to osteoporosis. It can also help prevent weak vertebra from becoming fractured by strengthening the bones in your spinal column.

The procedure involves injecting a fast-hardening glue into the areas that are fractured or weak. A similar procedure, called kyphoplasty, uses balloons to widen the spaces that need the glue. (The balloons are removed during the procedure.)

Outlook (Prognosis)    Return to top

Some persons with osteoporosis become severely disabled as a result of weakened bones. Hip fractures leave about half of patients unable to walk independently. This is one of the major reasons people are admitted to nursing homes.

Although osteoporosis is debilitating, it does not affect life expectancy.

Possible Complications    Return to top

When to Contact a Medical Professional    Return to top

Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of osteoporosis or if you wish to be screened for the condition.

Prevention    Return to top

Calcium is essential for building and maintaining healthy bone. Vitamin D is also needed because it helps your body absorb calcium. Following a healthy, well-balanced diet can help you get these and other important nutrients throughout life.

Other tips for prevention:

A number of medications are approved for the prevention of osteoporosis.

References    Return to top

Cranney A, Papaioannou A, Zytaruk N, et al. Clinical Guidelines Committee of Osteoporosis Canada. Parathyroid hormone for the treatment of osteoporosis: a systematic review. CMAJ. 2006 Jul 4;175(1):52-9.

Gass M, Dawson-Hughes B. Preventing osteoporosis-related fractures: an overview. Am J Med. 2006 Apr;119(4 Suppl 1):S3-S11. Review.

Estrogen and progestogen use in postmenopausal women: July 2008 position statement of The North American Menopause Society. Menopause. July/August 2008;15(4)584-602.

Management of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women: 2006 position statement of The North American Menopause Society. Menopause. 2006 May-Jun;13(3):340-67.

National Osteoporosis Foundation. Clinician's Guide to Prevention and Treatment of Osteoporosis. Feb. 2008. Accessed July 23, 2008. Available online at

Update Date: 8/4/2008

Updated by: Elizabeth H. Holt, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Section of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Yale University. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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