Osteoporosis is a serious bone disease that can affect any bone in the body – including the spine.
When it comes to commonly referenced severe health conditions, osteoporosis doesn’t seem to have as much shock value for people as say a cancer diagnosis might. But it may surprise you to learn that a man is more likely to break a bone due to osteoporosis than he is to develop prostate cancer. A woman has a higher risk of suffering an osteoporotic fracture than her combined risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke, or developing breast cancer. Make no mistake, osteoporosis is serious, and it can be deadly. Bone fractures in the spine are among the most severe complications of osteoporosis, as they can occur without falling. Even small amounts of torsion from twisting side-to-side during everyday movements can be enough to result in a debilitating spinal fracture.
Osteoporosis does not affect men and women equally. While a man can have up to a 1 in 4 chance of developing the condition after age 50, women have a 1 in 2 chance, with postmenopausal women especially vulnerable. Of the more than 200 bones in the human body, 16% of postmenopausal women have osteoporosis of the lumbar spine (also referred to as the low back). However, when adjusted for women’s longer life expectancy than men, studies have shown that vertebral fractures due to osteoporosis can affect up to 25% of men and women. Of course, the risk of osteoporosis and fracture increases with age. Though hip fractures are considered more expensive to treat and more disabling, vertebral fractures are shown to have a substantially negative effect on a person’s everyday bodily function and quality of life.
The effects of osteoporosis can also play a significant role in developing a spinal condition called kyphosis. Kyphosis is a curvature of the spine along the side, or sagittal plane. When a person with osteoporosis fractures vertebrae in the upper (thoracic) back, it can lead to pain, a loss of height, and a hunched or stooped posture – the key features of kyphosis. In some cases, the damage can occur painlessly through microfractures in the spine. The person experiencing them may not know a fracture has happened until they begin to lose height or develop posture abnormalities. In other osteoporosis cases, the kyphosis development can be so painful that it may render the individual unable to walk or perform the independent tasks of daily living.
The news isn’t all bad. There is much that each person can do to manage osteoporosis and prevent it from worsening; there is also quite a bit an individual can do to avoid developing it. First, and especially for those over the age of 50, a conversation should be had with the doctor at an annual physical about undergoing a bone density examination. This imaging test measures the strength of the bones and will give an individual an initial baseline for what their current bone health status is. If osteoporosis or its risk is suspected, the doctor might prescribe certain medications designed to slow the effects. The doctor will also likely tell the patient to exercise regularly and focus on eating high-quality foods rich in bone-nourishing vitamins, minerals, and calcium. Some fantastic bone health options include dark leafy green vegetables, foods fortified with calcium and Vitamin D such as orange juice and milk, as well as fatty fish varieties like salmon. As it turns out, even if a person hasn’t been diagnosed with osteoporosis, these fitness and dietary recommendations (minus the medication) are also quite effective at staving off osteoporosis.
As one can imagine, the building blocks for strong bones happen in childhood and carry us through our entire lifespan. If you have a child or grandchild, this is your friendly reminder to heavily encourage a quality diet and plenty of daily exercise. For the rest of us, though we can’t turn back the clock to our younger years, there is plenty we can do right now to ensure the pain or disability of osteoporosis doesn’t overshadow our Golden Years.