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Osteoporosis is a condition that causes weakened, porous bones. In osteoporosis, the body reabsorbs more bone tissue and produces less to replace it, lowering bone density. A person may not realize they have osteoporosis until they have a fracture.

In people with osteoporosis, the bones become porous and weaker, increasing the risk of fractures. This often affects the hips, spinal vertebrae, and some peripheral joints, such as the wrists.

The International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF) estimates that 10.2 million people in the United States had osteoporosis in 2010.

This article looks at how to treat osteoporosis, what causes the condition, and how a doctor diagnoses it.

Signs and symptoms

Senior black man sitting on his front porch
Willie B. Thomas/Getty Images

Osteoporosis develops slowly, and a person may not know they have it until they experience a fracture or break after a minor incident, such as a fall. Even a cough or sneeze can cause a break in osteoporotic bones.

Breaks will often occur in the hip, wrists, or the spinal vertebrae for people who have osteoporosis.

If a break occurs in the spinal vertebrae, it can lead to changes in posture, a stoop, and curvature of the spine. People might also notice a decrease in height, or their clothes may fit differently than they did previously.

When to contact a doctor

Severe discomfort in any of the common locations for osteoporotic bone damage could indicate an unexpected or unidentified fracture.

People should seek medical evaluation as soon as they notice this type of pain.

Learn more about the symptoms of osteoporosis.


Treatment aims to:

  • slow or prevent the development of osteoporosis
  • maintain healthy bone mineral density and bone mass
  • prevent fractures
  • reduce pain
  • maximize the person’s ability to continue with their daily life

People at risk of osteoporosis and fractures can use preventive lifestyle measures, supplements, and certain medications to achieve these goals.

Drug therapy

Medications that can help prevent and treat osteoporosis include:

  • Bisphosphonates: These are antiresorptive drugs that slow bone loss and reduce a person’s fracture risk.
  • Estrogen agonists or antagonists: Doctors also call these selective estrogen-receptor modulators (SERMS). Raloxifene (Evista) is one example. These can reduce the risk of spine fractures in women following menopause.
  • Calcitonin (Calcimar, Miacalcin): This helps prevent spinal fractures in postmenopausal people and can help manage pain after a fracture.
  • Parathyroid hormone, such as teriparatide (Forteo): The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved this hormone for treating people with a high fracture risk as it stimulates bone formation.
  • Monoclonal antibodies (denosumab, romosozumab): These are immune therapies that some people with osteoporosis take after menopause. Romosuzumab carries an FDA black box warning due to possible adverse effects. Other types of estrogen and hormone therapy may help.

The future of osteoporosis treatment

Doctors may use stem cell therapy to treat osteoporosis in the future. In 2016, researchers found that injecting a particular kind of stem cell into mice reversed osteoporosis and bone loss in a way that could also benefit humans.

Scientists believe that genetic factors strongly determine bone density. Researchers are investigating which genes are responsible for bone formation and loss in the hope that this might offer new osteoporosis treatment in the future.

Causes and risk factors

Doctors have identified several risk factors for osteoporosis. Some are modifiable, but it is not possible to avoid others.

The body continually absorbs old bone tissue and generates new bone to maintain bone density, strength, and structural integrity.

Bone density peaks when a person is in their late 20s, and it starts to weaken at around 35 years. As a person grows older, bone breaks down faster than it rebuilds. Osteoporosis may develop if this breakdown occurs excessively.

It can affect both males and females, but it is most likely to occur in females after menopause due to the sudden decrease in estrogen, which usually protects against osteoporosis.

The IOF advises that once people reach 50 years of age, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men will experience fractures due to osteoporosis.

Unavoidable factors

According to the American College of Rheumatology, nonmodifiable risk factors include:

  • Age: Risk increases after the mid-30s and especially after menopause.
  • Reduced sex hormones: Lower estrogen levels appear to make it harder for bone to regenerate.
  • Ethnicity: White people and Asian people have a higher risk than other ethnic groups.
  • Height and weight: Being over 5 feet 7 inches tall or weighing under 125 pounds increases the risk.
  • Genetic factors: Having a close family member with a diagnosis of hip fracture or osteoporosis makes osteoporosis more likely.
  • Fracture history: A person over 50 years of age with previous fractures after a low level injury is more likely to receive a diagnosis of osteoporosis.

Diet and lifestyle choices

Modifiable risk factors include inactivity and immobility

Weight-bearing exercise helps prevent osteoporosis. It places controlled stress on the bones, which encourages bone growth.

Drugs and health conditions

Some diseases or medications cause changes in hormone levels, and some drugs reduce bone mass.

Diseases that affect hormone levels include hyperthyroidismhyperparathyroidism, and Cushing syndrome.

Research from 2015 suggests that transgender women who receive hormone treatment (HT) may have an increased risk of osteoporosis. However, using anti-androgens for a year before starting HT may reduce this risk.

Transgender men do not appear to have a high risk of osteoporosis. However, scientists need to carry out more research to confirm these findings.

Medical conditions that increase the risk of osteoporosis include:

Medications that raise the risk include:

  • glucocorticoids and corticosteroids, including prednisone and prednisolone
  • thyroid hormone
  • anticoagulants and blood thinners, including heparin and warfarin
  • protein pump inhibitors (PPIs) and other antacids that adversely affect mineral status
  • some antidepressant medications
  • some vitamin A (retinoid) medications
  • thiazide diuretics
  • thiazolidinediones, used to treat type 2 diabetes, as these decrease bone formation
  • some immunosuppressant agents, such as cyclosporine, which increase both bone resorption and formation
  • aromatase inhibitors and other treatments that block sex hormones, such as anastrozole (Arimidex)
  • hormone-blocking agents, including letrozole (Femara), used to treat breast cancer by blocking estrogen, and leuprorelin (Lupron), which treats prostate cancer and other conditions by blocking testosterone

Glucocorticoid-induced osteoporosis is the most common type of osteoporosis that develops due to medication use.


Certain alterations to lifestyle can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

Calcium and vitamin D intake

Calcium is essential for bones. People should make sure they consume enough calcium daily.

Adults ages 19 years and above should consume 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day. Females over 51 years and all adults from 71 years onward should have a daily intake of 1,200 mg.

Dietary sources include:

  • dairy foods, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • green leafy vegetables, such as kale and broccoli
  • fish with soft bones, such as tinned salmon and tuna
  • fortified breakfast cereals

If a person’s calcium intake is inadequate, supplements are an option.

Vitamin D also plays a key role in preventing osteoporosis as it helps the body absorb calcium. Dietary sources include fortified foods, saltwater fish, and liver.

However, most vitamin D does not come from food but from sun exposure, so doctors recommend moderate, regular exposure to sunlight.

Lifestyle factors

Other ways to minimize the risk are:

  • avoiding smoking, as this can reduce the growth of new bone and decrease estrogen levels in females
  • limiting alcohol intake to encourage healthy bones and prevent falls
  • getting regular weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, as this promotes healthy bones and strengthens their support from muscles
  • performing exercises to promote flexibility and balance, such as yoga, which can reduce the risk of falls and fractures

Nutrition, exercise, and fall prevention techniques play a key role in reducing the risk of fracture and the rate of bone loss for people who already have osteoporosis.

Tips for fall prevention include:

  • removing trip hazards, such as throw rugs and clutter
  • having regular vision screenings and keeping eyewear up to date
  • installing grab bars, for example, in the bathroom
  • ensuring there is plenty of light in the home
  • practicing exercise that helps with balance, such as tai chi
  • asking the doctor to review medications to reduce the risk of dizziness

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends bone density screening for all women ages 65 years and over and younger women who are at high risk of experiencing a fracture.


A doctor will consider family history and any risk factors. If they suspect osteoporosis, they will request a bone mineral density scan.

Bone density scanning uses a type of X-ray known as dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA).

DEXA can indicate the risk of osteoporotic fractures. It can also help monitor a person’s response to treatment.

Two types of devices can carry out a DEXA scan:

  • A central device: This is a hospital-based scan that measures hip and spine bone mineral density while the individual lies on a table.
  • A peripheral device: This is a mobile machine that tests bone in the wrist, heel, or finger.

DEXA test results

Doctors give the test results as a DEXA T score or a Z score.

The T score compares an individual’s bone mass with the peak bone mass of a younger person.

The Z score compares the bone mass with that of other people of a similar build and age.

A doctor will typically repeat the test every 2 years as this allows them to compare results.

Learn more about bone density and osteoporosis.

Other tests

An ultrasound of the heel bone is another method that doctors use for assessing osteoporosis, and they can carry it out in the primary care setting. It is less common than DEXA, and the doctors cannot compare the measurements against DEXA T scores.


As bones become weaker, fractures occur more frequently, and, with age, they take longer to heal.

This can lead to ongoing pain and loss of stature as bones in the spine begin to collapse. Some people take a long time to recover from a broken hip, and others may no longer be able to live independently.

Anyone concerned that they may be at risk of osteoporosis can ask their doctor about screening.

Frequently asked questions

Here are some frequently asked questions about osteoporosis.

What is the main cause of osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis happens as a result of reduced bone mass and changes in a person’s bone structure. This is most likely to happen with aging, particularly after a person is over the age of 50 years.

How do you fix osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis treatment can help to slow or prevent the progression of the condition. A doctor may recommend medications such as bisphosphonates, estrogen agonists or antagonists, calcitonin, parathyroid hormone, or monoclonal antibodies.


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