Back pain symptoms may be due to osteoporosis-related vertebral fractures

Jul 11 2011
While many cases of back pain have a underlying cause - like a herniated disc - others are less specific and stem from progressive bone loss and weakness that affects most people as they age.

In fact, we are all familiar with the hunched postures of some older individuals - mainly women, though not exclusively - as well as the fact that many seniors appear to "shrink" as they grow old.

It turns out that the phenomenon of "losing height" can be attributed to intervertebral discs losing collagen, and thus their elasticity and thickness. In effect, they dry out. Moreover, osteoporosis - a disease that affects more than half of all Americans over the age of 50 - causes bones to lose calcium and become porous and weak. This not only increases the likelihood of experiencing falls that result in bone breaks, but may also lead to microfractures, which, if they occur in the spinal vertebrae, may give older individuals the hunched appearance known as kyphosis.

Recently, The New York Times reported on an 80-year-old woman who experienced this kind of fracture when bending to make her own bed. The news source stated that in 20 to 30 percent of such cases, there is evidence of multiple fractures, which are sometimes discovered only after doing an x-ray for an unrelated reason. That is because these fractures tend not to initially produce many symptoms, or are felt as a generic back pain that many people tend to dismiss as a normal sign of aging. However, the pain often gets worse and becomes chronic, necessitating aggressive pain management treatments.

Therefore, doctors stress the importance of not ignoring any persistent pain that lasts for three months or longer. Once the diagnosis of osteoporosis is made, there are several treatment options that may help patients stem the progression of the disease and possibly avoid future bone breaks or fractures.

These treatments include oral bisphosphonates and calcitonin to slow the rate of bone loss and relieve pain, according to the National Institutes of Health. However, regular exercise and a diet rich in vitamin D and calcium are also recommended, both for prevention of osteoporosis and for helping to mitigate its early stages.

The International Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that some 45 percent of vertebral fractures that occur in North America are undiagnosed and untreated. Moreover, women over the age of 65 who experience this type of fracture have a 25 percent chance of having another one within four years.