Osteoporosis is a condition that weakens bones, making them fragile and more likely to break.
It’s a fairly common condition that affects around three million people in the UK. More than 300,000 people receive hospital treatment for fragility fractures (fractures that occur from standing height or less) every year as a result of osteoporosis.
Wrist fractures, hip fractures and fractures of the vertebrae (bones in the spine) are the most common type of breaks that affect people with osteoporosis. However, they can also occur in other bones, such as in the arm, ribs or pelvis.
There are usually no warnings you’ve developed osteoporosis and it’s often only diagnosed when a bone is fractured after even minor falls.
Read more about the symptoms of osteoporosis.
What causes osteoporosis?
During childhood, bones grow and repair very quickly, but this process slows as you get older.
Bones stop growing in length between the ages of 16 and 18, but continue to increase in density until you’re in your late 20s.
You gradually start to lose bone density from about 35 years of age. Women lose bone rapidly in the first few years after the menopause (when monthly periods stop and the ovaries stop producing an egg).
Losing bone is a normal part of the ageing process, but for some people it can lead to osteoporosis and an increased risk of fractures.
Other factors that increase your risk of developing osteoporosis include:
- inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD)
- conditions that affect the hormone-producing glands, such as an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) or an overactive parathyroid gland (hyperparathyroidism)
- a family history of osteoporosis, particularly history of a hip fracture in a parent
- long-term use of certain medications that affect bone strength or hormone levels, such as oral prednisolone
- malabsorption problems
- heavy drinking and smoking
Read more about the causes of osteoporosis.
If your doctor suspects you have osteoporosis, they can make an assessment using an online programme, such as FRAX or Q-Fracture. They may also refer you for a scan to measure your bone mineral density.
This type of scan is known as a DEXA (DXA) scan. It’s a short, painless procedure and your bone mineral density can then be used to assess your fracture risk.
Read more about diagnosing osteoporosis.
Treatment for osteoporosis is based on treating and preventing fractures and using medication to strengthen bones.
The decision about what treatment you have – if any – will depend on your risk of fracture. This will be based on a number of factors, such as your age and the results of your DXA scan.
Read more about how osteoporosis is treated.
If you’re at risk of developing osteoporosis, you should take steps to help keep your bones healthy. This may include:
- taking regular exercise
- healthy eating, including foods rich in calcium and vitamin D
- making lifestyle changes, such as giving up smoking and reducing your alcohol consumption
Read more about preventing osteoporosis.
Living with osteoporosis
To help you recover from a fracture, you can try using:
- hot and cold treatments such as warm baths and cold packs
- transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) – where a small battery-operated device is used to stimulate the nerves and reduce pain
- relaxation techniques
Speak to your GP or nurse if you’re worried about living with a long-term condition. They may be able to answer any questions you have.
You may also find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor or psychologist or other people with the condition.
Read more about living with osteoporosis.
Symptoms of osteoporosis
Osteoporosis develops slowly over several years.
There are often no warning signs or symptoms until a minor fall or a sudden impact causes a bone fracture.
Healthy bones should be able to withstand a fall from standing height, so a bone that breaks in these circumstances is known as a fragility fracture.
The most common injuries in people with osteoporosis are:
Sometimes a cough or sneeze can cause a rib fracture or the partial collapse of one of the bones of the spine.
In older people, a fractured bone can be serious and result in long-term disability. For example, a hip fracture may lead to long-term mobility problems.
Although a fracture is the first sign of osteoporosis, some older people develop the characteristic stooping (bent forward). It happens when the bones in the spine have fractured, making it difficult to support the weight of the body.
Is osteoporosis painful?
Osteoporosis isn’t usually painful until it causes a fracture.
Although not always painful, spinal fractures are the most common cause of long-term (chronic) pain associated with osteoporosis.
Causes of osteoporosis
Osteoporosis causes bones to become less dense and more fragile. Some people are more at risk than others.
Bones are at their thickest and strongest in your early adult life and their density increases until your late 20s. But you gradually start losing bone density from around the age of 35.
This happens to everyone, but some people develop osteoporosis and lose bone density much faster than normal. This means they are at greater risk of a fracture.
Osteoporosis can affect men and women. It’s more common in older people, but it can also affect younger people.
Women are more at risk of developing osteoporosis than men because the hormone changes that occur in the menopause directly affect bone density.
Women are at even greater risk of developing osteoporosis if they have:
- an early menopause (before 45 years of age)
- a hysterectomy (removal of the womb) before the age of 45, particularly when the ovaries are also removed
- absent periods for more than six months as a result of overexercising or too much dieting
In most cases, the cause of osteoporosis in men is unknown. However, there’s a link to the male hormone testosterone, which helps keep the bones healthy.
Men continue producing testosterone into old age, but the risk of osteoporosis is increased in men with low levels of testosterone.
In around half of men, the exact cause of low testosterone levels is unknown, but known causes include:
- the use of certain medications, such as oral glucocorticoids
- alcohol misuse
- hypogonadism (a condition that causes abnormally low testosterone levels)
Many hormones in the body can affect the process of bone turnover. If you have a condition of the hormone-producing glands, you may have a higher risk of developing osteoporosis.
Hormone-related conditions that can trigger osteoporosis include:
- hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland)
- disorders of the adrenal glands, such as Cushing’s syndrome
- reduced amounts of sex hormones (oestrogen and testosterone)
- disorders of the pituitary gland
- hyperparathyroidism (overactivity of the parathyroid glands)
Other risk factors
Other factors thought to increase the risk of osteoporosis and broken bones include:
- a family history of osteoporosis
- a parental history of hip fracture
- a body mass index (BMI) of 19 or less
- long-term use of high-dose oral corticosteroids (widely used for conditions such as arthritis and asthma), which can affect bone strength
- having an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia
- heavy drinking and smoking
- rheumatoid arthritis
- malabsorption problems, as experienced in coeliac disease and Crohn’s disease
- some medications used to treat breast cancer and prostate cancer which affect hormone levels
- long periods of inactivity, such as long-term bed rest
Osteoporosis is often diagnosed after weakened bones have led to a fracture.
If you’re at risk of developing osteoporosis, your GP may refer you for a bone mineral density scan, known as a dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA, or DXA) scan.
Normal X-rays are a useful way of identifying fractures, but they aren’t a reliable method of measuring bone density.
DEXA (DXA) scan
A DEXA scan can be used to help diagnose osteoporosis. It’s a quick, safe and painless procedure that usually takes about five minutes, depending on the part of the body being scanned.
The scan measures your bone mineral density and compares it to the bone mineral density of a healthy young adult and someone who’s the same age and sex as you.
The difference between the density of your bones and that of a healthy young adult is calculated as a standard deviation (SD) and is called a T score.
Standard deviation is a measure of variability based on an average or expected value. A T score of:
- above -1 SD is normal
- between -1 and -2.5 SD is defined as decreased bone mineral density compared with peak bone mass
- below -2.5 is defined as osteoporosis
Although a bone density scan can help diagnose osteoporosis, your bone mineral density result isn’t the only factor that determines your risk of fracturing a bone.
Your age, sex and any previous injuries will need to be taken into consideration before deciding whether you need treatment for osteoporosis.
Your doctor can help you take positive steps to improve your bone health. If you need treatment, they can also suggest the safest and most effective treatment plan for you.
Although a diagnosis of osteoporosis is based on the results of your bone mineral density scan (DEXA or DXA scan), the decision about what treatment you need – if any – will also be based on a number of other factors. These include your:
- risk of fracture
- previous injury history
If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis because you’ve had a fracture, you should still receive treatment to try to reduce your risk of further fractures.
You may not need or want to take medication to treat osteoporosis. However, you should ensure that you’re maintaining sufficient levels of calcium and vitamin D. To achieve this, your healthcare team will ask you about your diet and may recommend making changes or taking supplements.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has made some recommendations about who should be treated with medication for osteoporosis.
A number of factors are taken into consideration before deciding which medication to use. These include your:
- bone mineral density (measured by your T score)
- risk factors for fracture
NICE has summarised its guidance for two groups of people:
- postmenopausal women with osteoporosis who haven’t had a fracture (primary prevention)
- postmenopausal women with osteoporosis who’ve had a fracture (secondary prevention)
You can read the NICE guidance by clicking on the links below.
- NICE guidance: Alendronate, etidronate, risedronate, raloxifene and strontium ranelate for the primary prevention of osteoporotic fragility fractures in postmenopausal women
- NICE guidance: Alendronate, etidronate, risedronate, raloxifene, strontium ranelate and teriparatide for the secondary prevention of osteoporotic fragility fractures in postmenopausal women
Medication for osteoporosis
A number of different medications are used to treat osteoporosis. Your doctor will discuss the treatments available and make sure the medicines are right for you.
Bisphosphonates slow down the rate at which bone is broken down in your body. This maintains bone density and reduces the risk of fracture.
There are a number of different bisphosphonates, including alendronate, etidronate, ibandronate, risedronate and zolendronic acid. They’re given as a tablet or injection.
You should always take bisphosphonates on an empty stomach with a full glass of water. Stand or sit upright for 30 minutes after taking them. You’ll also need to wait between 30 minutes and two hours before eating food or drinking any other fluids.
Bisphosphonates usually take 6 to 12 months to work and you may need to take them for five years or longer. You may also be prescribed calcium and vitamin D supplements to take at a different time to the bisphosphonate.
The main side effects associated with bisphosphonates include:
- irritation to the oesophagus (the tube food passes through from the mouth to the stomach)
- swallowing problems (dysphagia)
- stomach pain
Not everyone will experience these side effects.
Osteonecrosis of the jaw is a rare side effect that’s linked with the use of bisphosphonates, although most frequently with high-dose intravenous bisphosphonate treatment for cancer and not for osteoporosis.
In osteonecrosis, the cells in the jaw bone die, which can lead to problems with healing. If you have a history of dental problems, you may need a check-up before you start treatment with bisphosphonates. Speak to your doctor if you have any concerns.
Strontium ranelate appears to have an effect on both the cells that break down bone and the cells that create new bone (osteoblasts).
It can be used as an alternative treatment if bisphosphonates are unsuitable. Strontium ranelate is taken as a powder dissolved in water.
The main side effects of strontium ranelate are nausea and diarrhoea. A few people have reported a rare severe allergic reaction to the treatment. If you develop a skin rash while taking strontium ralenate, stop taking it and speak to your doctor immediately.
Selective oestrogen receptor modulators (SERMs)
Selective oestrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) are medications that have a similar effect on bone as the hormone oestrogen. They help maintain bone density and reduce the risk of fracture, particularly of the spine.
Raloxifene is the only type of SERM that’s available for treating osteoporosis. It’s taken as a tablet every day.
Parathyroid hormone (teriparatide)
Parathyroid hormone is produced naturally in the body. It regulates the amount of calcium in bone.
Parathyroid hormone treatments (human recombinant parathyroid hormone or teriparatide) are used to stimulate cells that create new bone (osteoblasts). They’re given by injection.
While other medication can only slow down the rate of bone thinning, parathyroid hormone can increase bone density. However, it’s only used in a small number of people whose bone density is very low and when other treatments aren’t working.
Nausea and vomiting are common side effects of the treatment. Parathyroid hormone treatments should only be prescribed by a specialist.
Calcium and vitamin D supplements
For most healthy adults, the recommended amount of calcium is 700 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day, which most people should be able to get from a varied diet that contains good sources of calcium.
However, if you have osteoporosis you may need more calcium, which will usually be in the form of supplements. Ask your GP for advice about taking calcium supplements.
Vitamin D is needed to help the body absorb calcium. It’s difficult to get enough vitamin D from your diet alone because few foods contain vitamin D. In the UK, most healthy adults obtain vitamin D from exposing the skin to summer sunlight.
However, for people at risk of not getting enough vitamin D, supplementation with 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day (400 international units (IU)) is recommended to prevent deficiency.
At risk groups include people over 65 years of age, and people who aren’t exposed to much sunlight because they cover their skin for cultural reasons, are housebound, or who stay indoors for long periods.
If you’re found to lack vitamin D, your GP may prescribe supplements at a higher dose than the above recommendation to correct the deficiency.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
HRT has also been shown to maintain bone density and reduce the risk of fracture during treatment.
However, HRT isn’t specifically recommended for treating osteoporosis and it isn’t often used for this purpose.
Discuss the benefits and risks of HRT with your GP.
Read more about the risks of HRT.
In men, testosterone treatment can be useful when osteoporosis is caused by insufficient production of male sex hormones (hypogonadism).
Read more about specific medicines for treating osteoporosis.
Your genes are responsible for determining your height and the strength of your skeleton, but lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise influence how healthy your bones are.
Weight-bearing exercise and resistance exercise are particularly important for improving bone density and helping to prevent osteoporosis.
As well as aerobic exercise, adults aged 19 to 64 should also do muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week by working all the major muscle groups, including the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms.
If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, it’s a good idea to talk to your GP or health specialist before starting a new exercise programme to make sure it’s right for you.
Read more about the physical activity guidelines for adults and find out more about:
Weight-bearing exercises are exercises where your feet and legs support your weight. High-impact weight-bearing exercises, such as running, skipping, dancing, aerobics, and even jumping up and down on the spot, are all useful ways to strengthen your muscles, ligaments and joints.
When exercising, wear footwear that provides your ankles and feet with adequate support, such as trainers or walking boots.
Read more about choosing sports shoes and trainers.
People over the age of 60 can also benefit from regular weight-bearing exercise. This can include brisk walking, keep-fit classes or a game of tennis. Swimming and cycling aren’t weight-bearing exercises, however.
Read more about the physical activity guidelines for older adults.
Resistance exercises use muscle strength, where the action of the tendons pulling on the bones boosts bone strength. Examples include press-ups, weightlifting or using weight equipment at a gym.
If you’ve recently joined a gym or haven’t been for a while, your gym will probably offer you an induction. This involves being shown how to use the equipment and having exercise techniques recommended to you.
Always ask an instructor for help if you’re not sure how to use a piece of gym equipment or how to do a particular exercise.
Read more about exercise and bone health.
Calcium is important for maintaining strong bones. Adults need 700mg a day, which you should be able to get from your daily diet. Calcium-rich foods include leafy green vegetables, dried fruit, tofu and yoghurt.
However, most vitamin D is made in the skin in response to sunlight. Short exposure to sunlight without wearing sunscreen (10 minutes twice a day) throughout the summer should provide you with enough vitamin D for the whole year.
Certain groups of people may be at risk of not getting enough vitamin D. These include:
- people who are housebound or particularly frail
- people with a poor diet
- people who keep covered up in sunlight because they wear total sun block or adhere to a certain dress code
- women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
If you’re at risk of not getting enough vitamin D through your diet or lifestyle, you can take a vitamin D supplement. For adults, 10 micrograms a day of vitamin D is recommended.
The recommended amount for children is 7 micrograms for babies under six months, and 8.5 micrograms for children aged six months to three years. Talk to your GP for more information.
Other lifestyle factors that can help prevent osteoporosis include:
- quitting smoking – smoking is associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis
- limiting your alcohol intake – the recommended daily limit is 3-4 units of alcohol for men and 2-3 units for women; it’s also important to avoid binge drinking
Living with osteoporosis
Your GP or nurse may be able to answer any questions you have about living with osteoporosis and can reassure you if you’re worried.
You may also find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor or psychologist, or to someone at a specialist helpline. Your GP surgery will have information about these.
Some people find it helpful to talk to others with osteoporosis, either at a local support group or in an internet chat room.
Call 0845 450 0230 or 01767 472 721. You can also email them at email@example.com.
Recovering from a broken bone
Broken bones usually take six to eight weeks to recover. Having osteoporosis doesn’t affect how long this takes. Recovery depends on the type of fracture you have. Some fractures heal easily, but others may require more intervention.
If you have a complicated wrist fracture or hip fracture, you may need an operation to make sure the bone is set properly. Hip replacements are often needed after hip fractures, and some people may lose mobility as a result of weakened bones.
Osteoporosis can cause a loss of height as a result of fractures in the spinal column. This means the spine is no longer able to support your body’s weight and causes a hunched posture.
This can be painful when it occurs, but it may also lead to long-term (chronic) pain. Your GP or nurse may be able to help with this.
During the healing process, you may need the help of a physiotherapist or occupational therapist so you can make as full a recovery as possible.
Coping with pain
Everyone experiences pain differently, so what works for you may differ from what works for someone else.
There are a number of different ways of managing pain, including:
- heat treatment, such as warm baths or hot packs
- cold treatment, such as cold packs
- transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) – this is thought to reduce pain by stimulating the nerves
- simple relaxation techniques, massage or hypnosis
You can use more than one of these techniques at the same time to manage your pain – for example, you could combine medication, a heat pack and relaxation techniques.
Working and money
You should be able to continue to work if you have osteoporosis. It’s very important that you remain physically active and have a fulfilled lifestyle.
This will help keep your bones healthy and stop you focusing too much on your potential health problems. However, if your work involves the risk of falling or breaking a bone, seek advice from your employer, GP and the National Osteoporosis Society about how to limit your risk of having an accident or injury that could lead to a bone break.
If you can’t continue working, you may be eligible for disability benefits, such as the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). People over 65 who are severely disabled may qualify for a disability benefit called Attendance Allowance.
Help for carers
You may also be entitled to certain benefits if you care for someone with osteoporosis.
Read more about benefits for carers.
- National Osteoporosis Society: Welfare rights, benefits and services (PDF, 123kb)
- GOV.UK: Carers and disability benefits
- Care and support: Care, finance and the law
- Money Advice Service
‘Talking to other people helps me deal with my pain’
Bob Rees was diagnosed with osteoporosis after collapsing in pain on a family holiday.
“I was 43 when I was diagnosed with osteoporosis. I was on a family holiday in the Dominican Republic in June 2002 when I collapsed in agony. In March 2003, nine months later and after extensive tests, I was diagnosed with severe spinal osteoporosis.
“I remember my relief at being told that I didn’t have bone cancer, as had been suspected, but my relief was shortlived when I was told that I had the bones of an 80-year-old.
“I turned to the National Osteoporosis Society (NOS) for support and I’m now an ambassador for the charity. I find that talking to other people with osteoporosis helps me deal with my own pain, and I advise anyone who has recently been diagnosed with osteoporosis to try to keep active. Don’t sit back and give in. Small lifestyle changes, such as walking regularly, can help keep your bones healthy.”
‘Even lying in bed was uncomfortable’
Phyllis Long, aged 60, was recently diagnosed with osteoporosis after months of experiencing upper back pain.
“I had severe pain in the right side of my upper back for about a month and decided I needed to see my GP. My back was so sore when anything touched it that even lying in bed was uncomfortable. It felt like my bones were sore.
“I went to see my GP in January and he wondered if I was experiencing thinning of my bones because of my age and medical history. I’d had a few breakages in the past 10 years. He referred me to a consultant orthopaedic and spine surgeon who prescribed diclofenac painkillers to keep the pain at bay.
“The consultant suggested I have an MRI scan on my back and a bone density scan on my back and hips, which would measure the calcium in my bones. The MRI showed that I had arthritis in my lower three vertebrae, and the bone density scan gave me my T score.
“I was told that the T score baseline was 0 and that a score between 1 and 3 would be ‘normal’. Unfortunately, the scan revealed that my hips, at -1.3, were in the osteopenic level, and my spine, at -3, was in the osteoporotic level.
“The score meant that I definitely had osteoporosis, and that my back was worse than my hips. My doctor indicated that the emergency hysterectomy I had after the birth of my second child could have been a factor in developing osteoporosis. I was very taken aback. I’d led a healthy life, eating lots of fresh fruit and taking plenty of exercise. Plus, there was no history of osteoporosis in my family.
“My consultant told me that they would treat the condition with a tablet called alendronic acid, which I now have to take once a week for the rest of my life. It’s from a group of non-hormonal medicines known as bisphosphonates, which prevent bone loss from the body.
“I walk regularly and am active in the garden. The medical advice was to continue all activity as normal, as exercise would help increase the amount of calcium in my bones.
“I had to provide a list of the foods I regularly ate so the doctor could see if there were any gaps in my diet. As I don’t have a very large intake of calcium, the doctor also prescribed chewable calcium tablets for me to take daily.
“I was given a list of high-calcium content foods, such as yoghurt, semi-skimmed milk, cheeses, whitebait, sardines and spinach, which I was advised to eat to boost my calcium intake.
“Within 24 months, I’ll have another bone scan and my doctor is confident that my bone density will have increased significantly. For now, I’m waiting for an appointment with a rheumatologist, who I assume will help me further in dealing with the condition.”