Osteopenia occurs when the body reabsorbs old bone at a faster rate than it makes new bone; essentially, bone development is not sufficient to stop normal bone loss (osteoid lysis). The chronic condition is less severe than osteoporosis, and some people have no symptoms despite having lower bone density than normal. Osteopenia has no cure, but treatment can make it more manageable for those who do develop symptoms.
Causes of Osteopenia
Osteopenia can develop as a result of poor dietary health and a lack of nutrients essential to bone development, such as vitamin C. Smoking, age-related hormonal changes, and particular diseases can also cause the condition, as can certain medications. Women are most at risk for developing the disorder, and it is most prevalent in people over the age of 60, likely due to the changes in bone density that occur as part of the aging process.
One of the methods used to diagnose osteopenia is a bone mineral density or BMD test. The results enable a physician to gauge how well a patient’s bones withstand the strain of normal activity without breaking. People with osteopenia have a lower BMD than normal. Physicians usually prescribe exercise, medications, and supplements to increase BMD.
Symptoms of Osteopenia
Unlike osteoporosis, osteopenia doesn’t have any significant symptoms. A person can be unaware they have the condition until it progresses. Most people do not experience symptoms at all unless osteoporosis develops. If this happens, symptoms such as stooped posture, back pain, loss of height, and brittle bones develop.
Aging is the most prevalent risk factor for osteopenia. After bone mass peaks around the age of 35, bone loss becomes more aggressive. Half of Americans over 50 eventually develop osteopenia. Small-boned Asian and Caucasian women and people with a family history of low BMD face the greatest risk. Menopause and oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) after menopause can also increase the risk.
Doctors treat osteopenia in a variety of ways, but the first step is always ensuring the diagnosis is accurate. The physician will measure bone density and explore existing risk factors before creating a specialized treatment plan. Much of the treatment for osteopenia focuses on increasing bone density, which prevents progression and the development of osteoporosis.
Specialists and Primary Care Providers
Most people with osteopenia are initially treated by their primary care provider. However, once the family physician has diagnosed a condition such as osteopenia, he or she will likely refer the patient to an endocrinologist, a specialist who treats metabolic and hormonal conditions. Other specialists like rheumatologists, internists or geriatricians may also get involved in your treatment.
Food as Treatment
Calcium and vitamin D are essential building blocks for strong bones, and people with osteopenia require a diet rich in these two vitamins. Typically, individuals must consume significant quantities of dairy products and vegetables such as broccoli and leafy greens. Protein also plays an essential role in bone density. Foods such as sardines, tofu, and salmon with bones are rich in both protein and calcium.
Supplements and Medication as Treatment
A physician may prescribe supplements and medication to help increase bone density or prevent bone loss. These are designed to work alone or in conjunction with other treatments to increase bone health.
Exercise as Treatment
In addition to medication, supplements, and dietary changes, most treatment programs for osteopenia require physical activity or therapy. Building muscle is directly linked to increased bone density. Weight-bearing exercises are a good choice, as well as walking, swimming, and elliptical and stair machines. Anyone with osteopenia should speak to a doctor to ensure they are targeting the right areas and not exacerbating the issue.
What is Osteoporosis?
Osteopenia is a mild thinning of the bones and may not progress in severity. However, it predisposes individuals to osteoporosis, which is considerably more severe. The latter condition can lead to bone loss, poor posture, brittle bones, and sometimes bone pain.