When healthy bones break, a cast, surgical screws or nails and a bit of rest usually do the trick. But when a patient has osteoporosis, fractures are more risky, as the bones have become brittle and fragile.
Osteoporosis, commonly known as brittle bones, is diagnosed when bone mass is below average and decreases at a higher than normal rate. The condition mainly affects the over-50s, who often have no symptoms for 10 to 15 years, until a fracture finally occurs.
Those affected often suffer a hip, shoulder or wrist fracture after a fall, as they often trip more easily. Even if the fracture is relatively clean, the healing process is usually very slow when the patient's bones are brittle.
One in three women over 50 who are past the menopause are at risk of brittle bones, as a decrease in the hormone oestrogen affects bone density, especially in women. Overall, women are twice as likely as men to suffer from osteoporosis.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has ranked the disease at number 10 of the most important diseases of our time. However, many people still do not take the condition seriously, despite the fact that it can even be life-threatening.
It has been proven that older patients and other patients who have suffered a hip fracture are more likely to die within five years than patients the same age who did not break their hip bone.
One of the reasons for that is the fact that patients' movements are restricted for a considerable time after the fracture occurs, as they spent long periods of time in bed. That can cause deep vein thrombosis, which can lead to pulmonary embolism or heart disease, which can be fatal.
Measuring bone density
Prevention is therefore key and relatively easy to achieve. Bone density can be measured with a digital x-ray, with the radiation much weaker than during a conventional x-ray.
The procedure allows doctors to measure the level of bone minerals in those bones most at risk of breaking, like the hip bone.
If the level of minerals is lower than average, ie if the level of calcium is too low, the patient has osteoporosis. She or he will usually be prescribed physiotherapy. A course on how to prevent falls or fall in a way that causes less damage is also recommended. Supportive underwear can also help prevent a fracture.
Medication can be a factor
Certain types of medication can increase the risk of osteoporosis. If someone has to take cortisone on a regular basis, he or she will be at risk. Chemotherapy can also cause brittle bones. Smoking and a high consumption of alcohol also affect bone density and can lead to osteoporosis.
One of the most important preventative measures is regular, especially weight-bearing, exercise, ideally from childhood. Diet is also a factor - patients should eat foods rich in calcium and vitamin D. The latter is the only vitamin the human body can produce itself by absorbing sunlight. But it can also be taken as a supplement, especially during the winter months.
Advanced osteoporosis can be treated with bisphosphonates, which can prevent further loss of bone mass, leading to increased density. Strontium works in a similar way.
Hormone therapy can also help, but as it increases the risk of breast cancer in women, it is a controversial treatment.
If diagnosed early and treated accordingly, osteoporosis can be stopped or even reversed. Patients do need discipline, though, and need to be aware that regular exercise and a good diet have to go hand in hand with any prevention or treatment options.