Osteoporosis literally means ‘porous bones’. It is a condition that weakens the bones and makes them more susceptible to fractures (breaks).
Our bones gradually build up and strengthen until our mid-20s, this is when our bones are at their strongest and most dense. After this the bones gradually lose their density, and in women this process occurs more rapidly after the menopause. Often we find that some bones are more affected than others, which varies among individuals.
Osteoporosis mainly affects post-menopausal women, although older men can also suffer from the condition. It is characterised by reduced bone mass and bone strength and can increase the risk of fragility fractures. A fragility fracture usually results from mechanical forces that would not ordinarily result in a fracture, known as low-level (or 'low energy') trauma, for example by falling from standing height. The milder form of reduced bone mass is called osteopenia, when bone mineral density is lower than normal but not low enough to establish a diagnosis of osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is often called the ‘silent disease’ as there are no symptoms of the bone loss that weakens the bones. In many cases people do not know they have osteoporosis until they break a bone doing something minor that would not usually cause a fracture, such as having a small trip or fall.
When low-trauma fractures occur in the hands, wrist, arms, shoulders, spine or hips they are likely to be caused by osteoporosis. Recent studies show that a previous wrist fracture can put individuals at a higher risk of suffering from a subsequent hip fracture. Only a quarter of osteoporotic fractures in the spine are due to a fall; most occur during routine everyday activities and can cause back pain, loss of height and curvature of the spine.
If you have had a low trauma fracture it is worth having a discussion with your GP to see whether you need further tests to ensure you are not suffering from osteoporosis.