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Osteoporosis, which means "porous bones," causes bones to become weak and brittle — so brittle that even mild stresses like bending over, lifting a vacuum cleaner or coughing can cause a fracture. In most cases, bones weaken when you have low levels of calcium, phosphorus and other minerals in your bones.

A common result is fractures — most of them in the spine, hip or wrist. Although it's often thought of as a women's disease, osteoporosis also affects many men. And aside from people who have osteoporosis, many more have low bone density.

In the early stages of bone loss, you usually have no pain or other symptoms. But once bones have been weakened by osteoporosis, you may have osteoporosis symptoms that include:

  • Back pain, which can be severe if you have a fractured or collapsed vertebra
  • Loss of height over time, with an accompanying stooped posture
  • Fracture of the vertebrae, wrists, hips or other bones

  • Causes:
    The strength of your bones depends on their size and density; bone density depends in part on the amount of calcium, phosphorus and other minerals bones contain. When your bones contain fewer minerals than normal, they're less strong and eventually lose their internal supporting structure.

    . . . The process of bone remodeling
    Scientists have yet to learn all the reasons why this occurs, but the process involves how bone is made. Bone is continuously changing — new bone is made and old bone is broken down — a process called remodeling, or bone turnover.

    A full cycle of bone remodeling takes about two to three months. When you're young, your body makes new bone faster than it breaks down old bone, and your bone mass increases. You reach your peak bone mass in your mid-30s. After that, bone remodeling continues, but you lose slightly more than you gain. At menopause, when estrogen levels drop, bone loss in women increases dramatically. Although many factors contribute to bone loss, the leading cause in women is decreased estrogen production during menopause.

    Your risk of developing this disease depends on how much bone mass you attained between ages 25 and 35 and how rapidly you lose it later. The higher your peak bone mass, the more bone you have "in the bank" and the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis as you age. Not getting enough vitamin D and calcium in your diet may lead to a lower peak bone mass and accelerated bone loss later.

    . . . What keeps bones healthy
    Three factors that you can influence are essential for keeping your bones healthy throughout your life:

  • Regular exercise
  • Adequate amounts of calcium
  • Adequate amounts of vitamin D, which is essential for absorbing calcium

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    . . . Hormone therapy
    Hormone therapy was once the mainstay of treatment for osteoporosis. But because of concerns about its safety and because other treatments are available, the role of hormone therapy in managing osteoporosis is changing. Most problems have been linked to certain oral types of HT, either taken in combination with progestin or alone. If you're interested in hormone therapy, other forms are available, including patches, creams and the vaginal ring.

    Discuss the various options with your doctor to determine which might be best for you.

    . . . Prescription medications
    If HT isn't for you, and lifestyle changes don't help, prescription drugs can help slow bone loss and may even increase bone density over time. They include:
      Bisphosphonates. Much like estrogen, this group of drugs can inhibit bone breakdown, preserve bone mass, and even increase bone density in your spine and hip, reducing the risk of fractures.
      Bisphosphonates may be especially beneficial for men, young adults and people with steroid-induced osteoporosis. They're also used to prevent osteoporosis in people who require long-term steroid treatment for a disease such as asthma or arthritis.
      Side effects, which can be severe, include nausea, abdominal pain, and the risk of an inflamed esophagus or esophageal ulcers, especially if you've had acid reflux or ulcers in the past. Bisphosphonates that can be taken once a week or once a month may cause fewer stomach problems. If you can't tolerate oral bisphosphonates, your doctor may recommend periodic intravenous infusions of bisphosphonate preparations.
      In 2007, the Food and Drug Association (FDA) approved the first once-yearly drug for postmenopausal women with osteoporosis. The medication, zoledronic acid (Reclast), is given intravenously at your doctor's office. It takes about 15 minutes to get your annual dose. One published study found that zoledronic acid reduces the risk of spine fracture by 70 percent and of hip fracture by 41 percent.
      A small number of cases of osteonecrosis of the jaw have been reported in people taking bisphosphonates for osteoporosis. These cases have primarily occurred after trauma to the jaw, such as a tooth extraction, or cancer treatment. Risk appears to be higher in people who have received bisphosphonates intravenously. While there is currently no clear evidence that you should stop taking bisphosphonates before dental surgery, let your dentist know what medications you're taking and discuss your concerns.
      Raloxifene (Evista) This medication belongs to a class of drugs called selective estrogen receptor modulators. Raloxifene mimics estrogen's beneficial effects on bone density in postmenopausal women, without some of the risks associated with estrogen, such as increased risk of uterine cancer and, possibly, breast cancer. Hot flashes are a common side effect of raloxifene, and you shouldn't use this drug if you have a history of blood clots. This drug is approved only for women with osteoporosis and is not currently approved for use in men.
      Calcitonin A hormone produced by your thyroid gland, calcitonin reduces bone resorption and may slow bone loss. It may also prevent spine fractures, and may even provide some pain relief from compression fractures. It's usually administered as a nasal spray and causes nasal irritation in some people who use it, but it's also available as an injection. Because calcitonin isn't as potent as bisphosphonates, it's normally reserved for people who can't take other drugs.
      Teriparatide (Forteo) This powerful drug, an analog of parathyroid hormone, treats this disease in postmenopausal women and men who are at high risk of fractures. Unlike other available therapies for osteoporosis, it works by stimulating new bone growth, as opposed to preventing further bone loss. Teriparatide is given once a day by injection under the skin on the thigh or abdomen. Long-term effects are still being studied, so the FDA recommends restricting therapy to two years or less.
      Tamoxifen This synthetic hormone is used to treat breast cancer and is given to certain high-risk women to help reduce their chances of developing breast cancer. Although tamoxifen blocks estrogen's effect on breast tissue, it has an estrogen-like effect on other cells in your body, including your bone cells. As a result, tamoxifen appears to reduce the risk of fractures, especially in women older than 50. Possible side effects of tamoxifen include hot flashes, stomach upset, and vaginal dryness or discharge.
    . . . Emerging therapies
    A new physical therapy program has been shown to significantly reduce back pain, improve posture and reduce the risk of falls in women with osteoporosis who also have curvature of the spine. The program combines the use of a device called a spinal weighted kypho-orthosis — a harness with a light weight attached — and specific back extension exercises. The WKO is worn daily for 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon and while performing 10 repetitions of back extension exercises.


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    ...less medical jargon in a 'Quick Glance' format!