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What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a disease that affects your bones. It means you have bones that are thin and brittle, with lots of holes inside them like a sponge. This makes them easy to break. Osteoporosis can lead to broken bones (fractures) in the hip, spine, and wrist.

What causes osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is caused by a lack of bone strength or bone density. As you age, your bones get thinner naturally. But some things can make you more likely to have the severe bone thinning of osteoporosis. These things are called risk factors. Some risk factors you can change. Others you can't change.

Risk factors you can't change include:

  • Your age. Your risk for osteoporosis goes up as you get older.
  • Loss of the male hormone testosterone. As you age, your body makes less of this hormone. Some medical treatments, like using corticosteroids or taking medicines to treat prostate cancer, can also lower the level of testosterone in your body.
  • Low estrogen levels. Evidence suggests that low levels of estrogen in men can lead to bone loss.
  • Certain diseases of the:
  • Your family background. Osteoporosis tends to run in families.
  • Having a slender body frame.
  • Your race. People of European and Asian background are most likely to get osteoporosis.

Risk factors you can change include:

  • Not getting enough calcium and vitamin D.
  • Smoking.
  • Not getting enough weight-bearing exercise.
  • Drinking too much alcohol. Heavy alcohol use (more than 2 drinks a day) can decrease bone formation. It also makes you more likely to fall.
  • Taking medicines that can affect bone growth and repair. Your doctor can tell you if you are taking any of these medicines. He or she can also help you understand if the benefit of the medicine is greater than the risk.

Experts suggest that older men talk to their doctors about osteoporosis and have bone density tests done if they are at risk.1

How is osteoporosis diagnosed?

Diagnosis is based on your medical history and a physical exam. Bone density testing measures the density of your bones using a special X-ray or CT scan. From this information, your doctor can estimate the strength of your bones. Your doctor may also do blood and urine tests to rule out other problems that may cause bone loss. Blood tests can also tell if low levels of testosterone or estrogen in your body are causing bone loss.

Screening tests

The National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) recommends that all men age 70 and older routinely have a bone density test to screen for osteoporosis. The NOF also recommends that you and your doctor check your fracture risk using a tool such as FRAX (Fracture Risk Assessment) starting at age 50. This tool can help you decide if you should be screened for osteoporosis. Talk to your doctor about your risk factors and when to start bone density screening.

Ultrasound is sometimes offered at events such as health fairs as a quick screening for osteoporosis. Ultrasound by itself isn't a reliable test for diagnosing osteoporosis. But if results of an ultrasound screening find low bone density, your doctor can help you decide whether you should have a bone density test.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: November 06, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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