Most people reach peak bone mass by the time they’re in their late twenties or early thirties. Beyond this point, bone loss progressively occurs. It can become an issue if the loss of bone tissue is accelerated by osteoporosis, a condition that affects roughly half of all Americans age 50 and older. If the spine is affected, vertebrae and facet (spinal) joints are more susceptible to fractures, which may contribute to severe pain and limited mobility. While bone loss can’t be entirely prevented, there are ways to minimize your fracture risk.
1. Determine If You’re at Risk for Developing Osteoporosis
The first step in preventing osteoporosis fractures is to know if you might be at risk. Statistically, the disease is more likely to affect seniors 65 and older, postmenopausal women, men with a testosterone deficiency, and individuals with a family history of osteoporosis. Risk factors also include:
- Being overweight or a small-boned woman who is underweight
- A lifestyle that includes unhealthy eating habits and little or no exercise
- Early menopause
- Calcium and vitamin D deficiencies
- Steroids and other medications used to treat unrelated health issues (e.g. gastrointestinal conditions, endocrine disorders, collagen disorders, and rheumatoid arthritis)
2. Get Regular Bone Density Tests
Usually done in a hip or the lower spine, a bone density test is a painless test that will determine if you have an abnormal amount of bone loss. The most common type of bone density test is a dual-energy X-ray absorption scan (DEXA or DXA scan). During the test, a low energy X-ray is passed through a bone to determine if bone density is normal. Results from a DEXA scan can be used to:
- Make a positive diagnosis of osteoporosis
- Track the progress of the condition in patients
- Show whether or not osteoporosis is primary or secondary in nature
Recommendations for how often testing is necessary are usually based on whether or not a patient has known risk factors for osteoporosis. For instance, a patient with osteopenia (bone density levels below normal yet not low enough to be classified as osteoporosis), should be screened more often than someone with no signs of abnormal bone loss. When detected early with a bone density test, osteoporosis can often be effectively managed to reduce the risk of fractures.
3. Make Positive Lifestyle Changes
If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis or osteopenia, another important step to take to prevent fractures is to follow a recommended treatment plan to slow the progress of your bone loss. Treatment usually includes recommendations for lifestyle or behavioral changes, such as getting more exercise, eating more foods rich in calcium and vitamin D (e.g. green leafy veggies, beans, dairy products, bright-colored fruits), and quitting smoking. Patients with osteoporosis may also benefit from:
- Doing weight-bearing exercises that strengthen bone-supporting muscles
- Removing fall hazards from around the home
- Avoiding excessive alcohol consumption*
*There’s research suggesting consuming more than two alcoholic beverages per day may contribute to bone loss.
4. Manage Bone Loss with Medication
Bone-strengthening drugs may restore or stabilize bones enough to reduce the risk of fractures. Alendronate and other bisphosphonates such as ibandronate and zoledronic acid are common medications prescribed to increase the strength of vertebral bones and related bony structures. Side effects of such medications are generally mild, but may include nausea and abdominal pain.
Calcitonin is a hormone medication that works by supporting cells that form bone tissue and inhabiting the ones that destroy these tissues. If you can’t get enough calcium and vitamin D from diet alone, supplements may be helpful. Related treatments for managing bone loss may include:
- Estrogen replacement therapy for postmenopausal women
- Testosterone replacement therapy for men with low testosterone levels
- Denosumab shots every six months*
*A medication sometimes prescribed as an alternative for patients not able to tolerate bisphosphonates.
It may take up to three months for a compression fracture of the spine caused by bones or joints weakened by osteoporosis to heal naturally. If bone breaks aren’t serious enough to require minimally invasive spine surgery, Beverly Hills doctors often recommend treatment options such as medication, activity modification, and bracing to stabilize the affected area so fractures can heal.
See a trusted Beverly Hills spine surgeon if your pain persists and you think you might need surgery. Call The Spine Institute today at 310-828-7757 to schedule an in-person evaluation.