Osteoporosis (brittle bones) is the condition by which bones lose their calcium and become weaker with increased risk of fracturing after relatively minor trauma. Once bones have been weakened by osteoporosis, signs and symptoms include:

  • back pain, caused by a fractured or collapsed vertebra
  • loss of height over time
  • a stooped posture
  • a bone that breaks much more easily than expected.

In older people fractures such as that of the hip can lead to significant immobility and risk of further complications such as pneumonia or blood clots which themselves have a direct effect on mortality risk.

Losing bone is a normal part of ageing, but some people lose bone much faster than normal. Women also lose bone rapidly in the first few years after the menopause. Women are more at risk of osteoporosis than men, particularly if the menopause begins early (before the age of 45) or they’ve had their ovaries removed.

However, osteoporosis can also affect men, younger women and children. Many other factors can also increase the risk of developing osteoporosis, including:

  • taking high-dose steroid tablets for more than 3 months
  • other medical conditions – such as inflammatory conditions, hormone-related conditions, or malabsorption problems
  • a family history of osteoporosis – particularly a hip fracture in a parent
  • long-term use of certain medicines that can affect bone strength or hormone levels, such as anti-oestrogen tablets that many women take after breast cancer
  • having or having had an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia
  • having a low body mass index (BMI)
  • not exercising regularly
  • heavy drinking and smoking

The most common means of detecting osteoporosis is by means of a bone density scan. The NHS uses the DEXA scan but a more accurate technique is low dose CT scanning as this is the only means of measuring the true volume density of the middle of the vertebrae. Detection of osteoporosis at an early stage enables effective treatment to be commenced which slows or even reverses the loss of bone and reduces the risk of future fractures.