How strong are your bones?

We frequently hear talk of osteoporosis, but do you know what it is—or if you have it? Osteoporosis literally means “porous bones.” It is a disease in which bone tissue and mass deteriorate, leading to frailty and a susceptibility to fractures.

“The kicker,” says Dr. Mary Wemple, a rheumatologist at Pacific Medical Centers, “is that this bone-loss condition occurs without symptoms. That’s why screening is so critical.” Because bones weaken gradually, people may not know that they have osteoporosis until a sudden strain, bump, or fall causes a fracture. In some serious cases, even a sneeze can cause a rib to break. Hip and spinal fractures can be significant, possibly leading to a hospitalization or surgery, a reduced ability to walk unassisted, or further injuries and decline. “Though osteoporosis cannot be cured, it can be effectively treated,” Dr. Wemple stresses. “And it’s important to note that it can be prevented.”

Who Gets Osteoporosis?

Of the 10 million people who have osteoporosis, 80 percent are women. Older women are particularly susceptible. Women can lose as much as 20 percent of their bone mass in the five to seven years following menopause. If you are a woman over age 65, screening is highly recommended. If you are younger than 65, but have risk factors for osteoporosis, you may benefit from screening.

While osteoporosis is more common in women, it certainly can affect men as well. Men who are over 70 years old should discuss bone density screening with their primary care doctor. Men younger than 70 may benefit from screening if they have risk factors for osteoporosis.

Bone Density Screening

One method of screening that your primary care physician might suggest is a bone density test or scan. A bone density scan is a quick, painless procedure using an enhanced, low-radiation form of X-ray technology called DXA (pronounced “dexa”). DXA, which stands for dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, is the most-often used method to diagnose bone loss. The DXA test can also assess your risk for developing fractures.

If your bone density is found to be low, you and your physician can work together on a treatment plan, which might include medication, to help prevent fractures before they occur. Future DXA scans can track the effects of your treatment.

Pacific Medical Centers, where Dr. Wemple works, has three locations where you can receive a DXA scan: Canyon Park, First Hill and Beacon Hill. Prior to scheduling your DXA scan, please contact your insurance company to determine if you need a referral from your primary care provider. Many insurance companies do allow patients to get a DXA scan without a referral.

Preventive Measures

The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends the following five steps to optimize bone health and help prevent osteoporosis:

  • Get the daily recommended amounts of calcium and vitamin D
  • Engage in regular weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercise
  • Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about bone health
  • Have a bone density test and take medication when appropriate
  • Consult your physician for advice regarding appropriate dose of calcium and vitamin D and the right exercise program for you.