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Published on August 23, 2015

Brittle bones can pose hidden danger

Statistically, one of every three women and one of every five men are likely to suffer from osteoporosis after the age of 50. In the vast majority of cases, they won’t even know they have it until it may be too late to avoid an acute fracture and permanent stooping.

“Osteoporosis is a very major problem here because the Cape has one of the oldest populations in the country,” says Gordon Nakata, MD, a Cape Cod Hospital neurosurgeon. While it can strike younger people who suffer digestive, hormonal and parathyroid maladies, it overwhelmingly affects the elderly.

“The problem is it’s mostly a silent disease and you won’t know you are walking around with it until you suffer a fracture,” explains Dr. Nakata.

In its early stages, there rarely are obvious symptoms, he says.

“I find that as a specialist, more often than I would like, I am having the first conversation with someone when they unknowingly come in with a spinal fracture. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how long they had.”

Usually, some minor incident manifests osteoporosis. It can be rolling over in bed, sneezing, stooping to pick up the paper in the driveway.

The challenge is that many people will assume the injury is just a sprain. They will self-medicate with an over-the-counter pain killer and maybe rest, and often that will seem to work, Dr. Nakata says. However, the underlying issue of osteoporosis still lurks.

In fact, the International Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that 80 percent of individuals at high risk are neither identified nor treated.

The red flag is “extreme pain after something very minor and benign,” says Dr. Nakata.

He points to one of his patients who recently learned, with great surprise, that she had a total of six spinal fractures. How did this occur?

The patient could pinpoint only two events. She recalled moving a window screen and hearing “something snap.” She felt extreme pain, but treated it with medications. It did ease and for a while, she felt fine.

Another time, she was cleaning her cat’s litter box. “I could feel something go,” she said.

Fractures associated with osteoporosis increase geometrically, Dr. Nakata says. If you suffer one, the chances of a second one rise five-fold. After a second one, odds of a third rise 12 times.

Once you reach your 60s, especially if you are a woman, it is critical to be aware of the risk of osteoporosis, says Dr. Nakata.

But men also have to be attentive. It is estimated that the residual lifetime risk of experiencing an osteoporotic fracture in men over the age of 50 is up to 27 percent, higher than the lifetime risk of developing prostate cancer of 11.3 percent.

While early symptoms are virtually invisible for most people, there are some indicators that you should be aware of, including:

  • Chronic back pain
  • Kyphosis, a condition marked by a stooped posture
  • Bloating
  • Quick feeling of fullness while eating
  • Difficulty breathing