Many people think back pain is just part of getting older. But be careful. When you begin to be nearing age 60, it can mean you could have tiny cracks in the bones. These bones are called vertebrae and the cracks form in them inside your spine. At the point these small hairline fractures add up, they can eventually cause a vertebra to collapse. This is what doctors call a spinal compression fracture.
How these fractures happen
Fractures begin with soft, weakened bones. Compression fractures are caused most of the time by the bone-thinning condition called osteoporosis. You are especially susceptible if you are a woman over the age of 50 who has been through menopause.
Once bones become brittle, the vertebrae aren’t strong enough to support your spine the same way it used to during everyday activities. If you bend to lift an object, miss a step, or even just slip on a carpet, your spinal bones are at risk of fracturing. For some who have a severe case of osteoporosis - even coughing or sneezing can cause compression fractures.
Once the spine has suffered a big number of small compression fractures, your body will show the effects. The shape of your spine changes and its strength is greatly diminished. You will even lose height because your spine has become shorter.
Usually a compression fracture will happen in the front of the vertebra. Once there are enough of them, the front part of the bone can actually collapse. Because the back of the vertebra is made of much harder bone, it stays intact. This will create a wedge-shaped vertebra and is what can lead to the stooped posture you might know as a dowager’s hump. Doctors call it kyphosis.
Who is at the greatest risk?
Two groups of people that are at the highest risk for spinal compression fractures:
People with osteoporosis
People with cancer that has spread to their bones
If a doctor has diagnosed you with certain kinds of cancer — including multiple myeloma and lymphoma — they might begin monitoring you for compression fractures.
Unfortunately, sometimes a spinal fracture is the first sign that a person has cancer.
The majority of spinal compression fractures happen due to osteoporosis. Some folks will have a higher chance of getting the disease due to:
Race: White and Asian women have the greatest risk.
Age: Incidents are highest for women over 50 and go up exponentially with age.
Weight: Thin women are at the highest risk.
Early menopause: Women who went through it before age 50 have higher chances of getting osteoporosis.
Smokers: Those who smoke lose bone thickness a lot faster than nonsmokers.
A person can have osteoporosis and not even know it. According to records, about two-thirds of spinal compression fractures are never diagnosed. This is because most people think the back pain is simply part of aging and Arthritis.
When osteoporosis isn’t treated, it leads to more fractures. It is critically important to see your doctor if you’re in pain. You shouldn’t lift anything at all - not even pillows and comforters when making beds - as the risk of increasing pain and creating more fractures is just too high.
Osteoporosis treatment doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never get another compression fracture. It will just significantly lower your odds.
Risk and prevention
Just because you can’t change many of the things that raise your chances of developing osteoporosis, like your genes, your age and your sex - it doesn’t mean you can’t take measures to prevent the disease.
Who gets Osteoporosis?
A person’s age, gender, family history and ethnicity all play a role in how likely you are to get osteoporosis. Taking some types of medications, heavy drinking and heavy smoking can also put you at a much higher risk.
Avoiding bad bone risks
Eating salty foods, drinking too much soda and spending most of your time indoors are among habits that are bad for your bones.
Older women aren’t the only ones at risk
While white women appear to be at the greatest risk for osteoporosis, the disease doesn’t discriminate. Both men and women of all ethnic groups can and have developed the disease.
Osteoporosis prevention basics
A healthy diet and certain types of exercise, along with spending time in the sun can help to cut your osteoporosis risk.
Vitamin D and Osteoporosis
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. We need more vitamin D as we get older. Are you getting enough? If your diet doesn’t contain sufficient amounts of this bone saver, supplements may help.
Prevent disease progression: Managing Osteopenia
A range of treatments and healthy habits will slow osteopenia (weakened bones) and prevent osteoporosis. See your doctors and speak with them about your risks and the best prevention program for you.
Julie Ann Soukoulis is the owner of Home Instead Senior care office in Rohnert Park, mother of two and passionate about healthy living at all ages. Having cared for her own two parents, she understands your struggles and aims, through her website, www.homeinstead.com/sonoma to educate and encourage seniors & caregivers. Have a caregiving or aging concern? She’d love to hear from you at 586-1516 anytime.