Brittle bone disease or osteoporosis

Brittle bone disease or osteoporosis

Brittle bone disease or osteoporosis

Our bones give our bodies shape and support and protect our organs and systems. Take these steps and your skeleton will thank you!

Osteoporosis, which means “porous bones”, causes bones to become weak and brittle – so brittle that even mild stresses such as bending over, lifting a vacuum cleaner or coughing can cause a fracture. In most cases, bones weaken when you have low levels of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and other minerals in your bones.
A common result of osteoporosis is fractures – most of them occur in the spine, hip or wrist. Although it’s often thought of as a women’s disease, osteoporosis also affects many men and even children. Aside from people who have osteoporosis, many more have low bone density. This is when your bone density is lower than normal, but not low enough to be considered osteoporosis.

It’s never too late – or too early – to do something about osteoporosis. You can take steps to keep bones strong and healthy throughout your life.


The osteoporosis can be present for decades without any symptoms, because osteoporosis doesn’t cause symptoms unless the bone fractures. Some osteoporosis fractures may escape detection until the sufferer has a painful fracture occurs. Only then will the symptoms be felt at the location of the fracture.

Fractures of the spine (vertebra) can cause severe “band-like” pain that radiates around from the back to the side of the body. Over the years, repeated spine fractures can cause chronic lower back pain as well as loss of height or curving of the spine, which gives the individual a hunched-back appearance of the upper back, often called a “dowager hump”.

A fracture that occurs during the course of normal activity is called a minimal trauma fracture or stress fracture. For example, some people with osteoporosis develop stress fractures of the feet while walking or stepping off a curb.

Hip fractures typically occur as a result of a fall. With osteoporosis, hip fractures can occur as a result of trivial accidents. Hip fractures may also be difficult to heal after surgical repair because of poor bone quality.

Factors that determine bone strength

  • Bone mass (bone density) is the amount of bone present in the skeletal structure. Generally, the higher the bone density, the stronger the bones. Bone density is greatly influenced by genetic factors, which in turn are sometimes modified by environmental factors and medications. For example, men have a higher bone density than women. African Americans have a higher bone density than Caucasian or Asian Americans.
  • Normally, bone density accumulates during childhood and reaches a peak by around age 25. Bone density is then maintained for about 10 years. After the age of 35, both men and women will normally lose 0.3% to 0.5% of their bone density per year as part of the aging process.
  • Oestrogen is important in maintaining bone density in women. When oestrogen levels drop after menopause, bone loss accelerates. During the first 5 to 10 years after menopause, women can suffer between 2% and 4% loss of bone density per year! This can result in the loss of between 25% and 30% of their bone density during that period. Accelerated bone loss after menopause is a major cause of osteoporosis in women.

Risk factors for developing osteoporosis

Factors that will increase the risk of developing osteoporosis are:

  • Female gender
  • Caucasian or Asian race
  • Thin and small body frames
  • Family history of osteoporosis
  • Personal history of fracture as an adult
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Lack of exercise
  • Diet low in calcium
  • Poor nutrition and poor general health.


Certain risk factors which predispose a person to the developing of osteoporosis cannot be altered – you cannot change your gender, race or age. You can however do much to prevent further bone loss. There are four main areas in which you can help maintain healthy bones:

  • Eat a balanced diet rich in calcium or take calcium supplements
  • Do regular weight-bearing exercise
  • Stop smoking
  • Decrease your alcohol intake.


Revised by M Collins