What is osteopenia?
Osteopenia refers to bone density that is lower than normal peak density but not low enough to be classified as
osteoporosis. Bone density is a measurement of
how dense and strong the bones
are. If your bone density is low compared to normal peak density, you are said to have
osteopenia. Having osteopenia means there is a greater
risk that, as time passes, you may develop bone density that is very low compared to
normal, known as osteoporosis.
What causes osteopenia?
Bones naturally become thinner as people grow
older because, beginning in middle age, existing bone cells are reabsorbed by
the body faster than new bone is made. As this occurs, the bones lose minerals,
heaviness (mass), and structure, making them weaker and increasing their risk
of breaking. All people begin losing bone mass after they reach peak bone density at
about 30 years of age. The thicker your bones are at about age 30, the longer
it takes to develop osteopenia or osteoporosis.
Some people who
have osteopenia may not have bone loss. They may just naturally have a lower
bone density. Osteopenia may also be the result of a one or more other
conditions, disease processes, or treatments. Women are far more likely to
develop osteopenia and osteoporosis than men. This is because women have a
lower peak bone density and because the loss of bone mass speeds up as hormonal changes
take place at the time of menopause. In both men and women, the following
things can contribute to osteopenia:
- Eating disorders or metabolism problems that do
not allow the body to take in and use enough vitamins and
- Chemotherapy, or medicines such as steroids used to treat
a number of conditions, including asthma
- Exposure to
Having a family history of osteoporosis, being thin, being
white or Asian, getting limited physical activity, smoking, regularly drinking
cola drinks, and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol also increase the risk
of osteopenia and, eventually, osteoporosis.
What are the symptoms?
Osteopenia has no symptoms. You notice no
pain or change as the bone becomes thinner, although the risk of breaking a
bone increases as the bone becomes less dense.
How is osteopenia diagnosed?
Osteopenia is diagnosed with a
bone density test, usually done to see whether you have
osteoporosis. The most accurate test of bone density is dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry
(DXA), although there are other methods. DXA is a form of X-ray that can
detect as little as 2% of bone loss per year. A standard X-ray is not useful in
diagnosing osteopenia, because it is not sensitive enough to detect small
amounts of bone loss or minor changes in bone density. See the topic
Osteoporosis for more information on bone density testing.