Osteoporosis causes your bones to become weaker and therefore more likely to break from only minor falls or injuries.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis involves gradual weakening of your bones over time, making them fragile and more likely to break (fracture). If you have osteoporosis, you'll have lost some of the material (mineral) that makes up your bones. In other words, your bones will have become less dense. You may hear this described as thinning of the bones, having brittle bones or having a reduced bone density.

Osteoporosis affects over 3 million people in the UK and mainly affects older people, but can affect younger adults too.

Osteoporosis is a chronic (long-term) condition that can be managed through medication and preventing fractures.

How to tell if you have osteoporosis

There are no early symptoms of osteoporosis because you can't feel your bones getting weaker. In fact, osteoporosis is usually only detected when a bone fractures (breaks) following a minor fall or sudden impact. The most common injuries in people with osteoporosis are:

  • Wrist fractures
  • Hip fractures
  • Fractures of the spinal bones (backbones)

Spinal bone fractures may cause back pain, gradual loss of height and a hunched or stooped posture.

You should see your GP if you:

  • Have a history of fractures
  • Are starting to develop a hunched or stooped posture
  • Have pain or discomfort in your neck or back
  • Have hip pain

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for osteoporosis

If your GP suspects osteoporosis, they may arrange for you to have a DEXA scan. This is a short, painless procedure that takes about five minutes, depending on the part of the body being scanned. It’s used to find out how much material your bones contain. This information is then used to determine whether you have osteoporosis.

Causes of osteoporosis

While there are no clear causes of osteoporosis, some people have a greater chance of developing the condition than others. Women are known to lose bone rapidly in the first few years after the menopause. This means that postmenopausal women are more at risk of osteoporosis than men, particularly if their menopause begins before the age of 45.

Your risk of developing osteoporosis is increased if you're over 65 years (women) or 75 years (men). Other factors include:

  • Your bones fracture easily (from a slight bump, for example)
  • You’ve had a hysterectomy or early menopause without hormone replacement therapy
  • You’ve taken steroid tablets for over three months
  • You're underweight (a BMI of less than 21)
  • You suffer from rheumatoid arthritis
  • You smoke or drink heavily
  • You have a family history of hip fractures

Common treatments for osteoporosis

Your doctor will consider a number of factors before deciding the best osteoporosis treatment for you. They'll consider your age, sex and the results of your DEXA scan before prescribing medication or recommending lifestyle changes, such as:

  • Increasing your dietary intake of calcium
  • Taking vitamin D supplements
  • Exercising regularly
  • Avoiding smoking and alcohol

Medications for osteoporosis prevent further break down of your bones or build up their strength. It's also important to avoid fractures by preventing falls. Check your home for trip hazards and make sure you have regular sight and hearing tests.