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:
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:
Read more about preventing osteoporosis.
Living with osteoporosis
If you're diagnosed with osteoporosis, there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of a fall, such as removing hazards from your home and having regular sight tests and hearing tests.
To help you recover from a fracture, you can try using:
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.
The National Osteoporosis Society can put you in touch with local support groups, and they also have an online discussion forum.
Read more about living with osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis often affects women, particularly after the menopause (when monthly periods stop). However, it can also sometimes affect men, younger women and children.
Other groups who are at risk of developing osteoporosis include:
- people who've been taking steroid medication for more than three months
- women who've had their ovaries removed
- people with a family history of osteoporosis
- people with an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia
- people who don't exercise regularly
- people who smoke or drink heavily
Healthy living advice for women aged 40 to 60. Includes real stories on losing weight and alcohol dangers
Page last reviewed: 23/04/2014
Next review due: 23/04/2016