Osteoporosis and Osteopenia: Know the Difference Now

Osteoporosis and Osteopenia

Is there a difference between osteoporosis and osteopenia?  Yes, and it’s that one can lead to another.  But you can take steps to prevent both.

Osteoporosis is an incredibly common disease that affects more than 54 million Americans and an estimated 200 million people worldwide. While osteoporosis ultimately results in painful and often deadly symptoms in its later stages, it is also a highly preventable disease with a set of easily identifiable risk factors.

Osteoporosis and its sibling disease, osteopenia, are serious diseases, but with a thorough understanding of the condition, you can mitigate your risk (or the risk to someone you love), treat the disease, and live a full and energetic life.

Understanding Osteoporosis and Osteopenia

What is Osteopenia?

Osteopenia serves as a precursor to osteoporosis (3). The two diseases are related and one (osteopenia) can lead to the other (osteoporosis).

Osteopenia is a condition that exists prior to a full osteoporosis diagnosis (4). It is defined as the point at which your bones begin to weaken and become more porous, but they are not quite at the point of deterioration where they easily break yet. Many people cannot understand that osteoporosis and osteopenia have a difference.

What are the symptoms of Osteopenia?

Because osteopenia is the precursor to osteoporosis, there are almost no perceptible symptoms. The bones have not yet reached the point where they are impacted enough to break more easily or more frequently.

The only way to receive an osteopenia diagnosis is to request a BMD (Bone Mineral Density) test, or when receiving treatment for a broken bone.

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What are the risk factors involved with Osteopenia?

Because osteopenia and osteoporosis are such similar conditions, the risk factors that affect your likelihood of getting either are exactly the same. Osteopenia may occur in younger patients, but it is not perceptible without proactive monitoring.

What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a bone disease that causes bones to weaken, lose density, and break much more easily than healthy bones (1). You should know osteoporosis and osteopenia before taking any step.

Just like any other cellular structure in the body, bone is comprised of living tissue. That means that it grows and replenishes itself over time. The younger you are the more quickly you replenish your bone mass.

Generally, a person’s bones are the strongest around age thirty. After that, your ability to replenish your bone mass naturally decreases with age to some degree. Osteoporosis accelerates that decrease.

Bone is also naturally porous. That means that there are spaces between the bone material on a microscopic level. Someone with osteoporosis, however, has bones that are much more porous, and thus much more brittle (2).

What are the symptoms of Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis has indicators which include:

  • Bones that break more easily
  • Noticeable loss of height
  • Hunched posture
  • Pain, especially in the back

Osteoporosis is most easily identified by the change in a person’s height or their posture, but the unfortunate truth is that most diagnoses come as a result of unexpected broken bones.

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Osteoporosis is typically diagnosed by a Bone Mineral Density (BMD) test which is done through a process called, “dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry” or DEXA.

What are the risk factors involved with Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis has an easily identifiable set of risk factors. Some are static and cannot be changed. Others you can prepare for – lessening your risk ahead of time.

The static risk factors include:

  • Gender – Women are much more likely to be diagnosed than men
  • Age – People over fifty are at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis
  • Race – People of white or Asian descent are at greater risk
  • Genetics – Family predisposition increases your likelihood of diagnosis
  • Hormone levels – Especially those that correspond to a life change such as menopause

Changeable factors that can be positively influenced include:

  • Prescription medications; especially steroids
  • Diet
  • Activity level
  • Lifestyle choices
  • Eating disorders

Living with your diagnosis: the next steps

So you had a BDM test and have been diagnosed with osteoporosis. What comes next?

To treat osteoporosis, or better yet, to intervene while you still have osteopenia, it is necessary to embrace a number of lifestyle changes including:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting plenty of exercise
  • Preventing your risk of falls
  • Getting on a medication to help regain bone mass

So, what should you do for osteoporosis and osteopenia? An osteoporosis diagnosis is a serious matter, but by making proactive changes to the way you live your life, with safety, diet, and overall personal health in mind, osteoporosis doesn’t have to hold you back. With careful planning, and consultation with your doctor, you can lead a full and engaging life regardless of the disease.

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1. Mayo Clinic Staff. “Osteoporosis.” Mayoclinic.org. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. 

2. National Osteoporosis Foundation. “What is Osteoporosis and What Causes It.” Nof.org . NOF. 

3. WebMD Staff. ” What is Osteopenia?” WebMD.com. WebMD LLC. 

4. Harvard Health Publishing Staff. “Osteopenia: When You Have Weak Bones, but Not Osteoporosis.” health.harvard.edu. Harvard University. 

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