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Osteopaenia

3-minute read

If your bones are weaker than normal, you might have osteopaenia. It's not as severe as osteoporosis, but you still have to be careful if you are especially at risk.

What is osteopaenia?

Osteopaenia (sometimes spelled osteopenia) is the medical name for low bone density, or thinning of the bones. If you have low bone density, your bones are more fragile. It can be easier to break or partially break a bone if you have an accident.

Osteopaenia is not as severe as osteoporosis — your bones won’t be as fragile. Also, not everyone who has osteopaenia will develop osteoporosis, but it is an early warning sign that you should be taking action to reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis and breaking a bone in future.

Causes of osteopaenia

Many things can cause osteopaenia, including:

  • getting older
  • poor bone health that runs in the family
  • not getting enough vitamin D, calcium and exercise
  • being underweight
  • smoking
  • drinking large amounts of alcohol
  • having a disease such as coeliac disease or cystic fibrosis
  • chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, liver disease, and kidney disease
  • some medicines, including steroids, for a long time
  • having an eating disorder

Diagnosis of osteopaenia

Osteopaenia doesn’t have any symptoms. You might only find out that you have it when you break a bone. This could happen after a small accident, like a knock or a slip.

You can talk to your doctor about your risk of developing osteopaenia.

If your doctor thinks that you are at risk, you might be referred for a bone density scan. This test measures the level of minerals in your bones. You might have scans taken of your hips, part of your spine, your wrists and other places.

Your doctor will examine the results and compare your bone density to that of other people. This will show if you have normal bone density, osteopaenia or osteoporosis.

If you have any of these tests, you should ask your doctor whether you are eligible for any Medicare rebates.

Risk factors for osteopaenia

Most people find their bone density decreases as they get older.

Women can develop low bone density after menopause. Because levels of the hormone oestrogen decline, the bones lose calcium and other minerals quite quickly. So going through menopause early puts a woman at risk.

A lack of hormones can also be a risk for men.

Osteopaenia runs in families. Tell your doctor if someone in your family has been diagnosed with osteoporosis, or has broken a bone after a knock or a fall.

Lifestyle can also be an important factor. You need to eat food containing enough calcium, and get enough vitamin D from your diet or from outdoor sunlight.

Not exercising enough or being overweight can also affect bone density. If you smoke, quit. If you drink a lot of alcohol, cut down.

Treatment for osteopaenia

There are 3 important parts of treatment for osteopaenia.

  • Get enough calcium by consuming dairy foods, tinned salmon or sardines, broccoli, almonds and more.
  • Get enough vitamin D by being in the sun each day (but make sure you protect yourself against sunburn). How long you need will depend on where you live where you live.
  • Stay active with things like brisk walking or jogging, skipping, dancing or sport. Swimming and cycling, while healthy in other ways, don't strengthen your bones as much as weight bearing exercise.

You can also talk to your doctor about supplements.

If you have health conditions that put you at risk of falling, an occupational therapist can help you reduce that risk.

Healthy Bones Australia also has lots of information on bone health.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2020


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