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Tracking Down Osteoporosis – The Silent Disease

A new service that aims to diagnose osteoporosis earlier is now becoming available – and it could save you from painful fractures.

Claire Severgnini
Claire Severgnini, Chief Executive of the National Osteoporosis Society

Over three million people in the UK are estimated to have osteoporosis, but many will not know it.” Osteoporosis is known as ‘the silent disease’ because you may not know you have it until you break a bone,” says Claire Severgnini, chief executive of the National Osteoporosis Society (NOS).

In osteoporosis the struts which make up the mesh-like structure within bones become thin, so bones become fragile and break easily, often following a minor bump or fall. These broken bones are called fragility fractures. The wrists, hips and spine are most commonly affected. Some backache, loss of height and curvature of the spine that can come with age may result from undiagnosed spinal fragility fractures.

Drugs to treat osteoporosis are now available, but many people, unaware they have it, go untreated.

Now NOS is working with the NHS to increase diagnosis by establishing fracture liaison services across the country. Severgnini says: “Over half of people with hip fractures have previously had fragility fractures, so the NHS is reviewing fracture cases and calling in patents for osteoporosis tests where appropriate.”

Currently NOS is working with 142 NHS sites to set up or develop the service, but ultimately it will be available in 170 sites. “This year alone over 2.36 million over-50s have gained access to a fracture liaison service where there was none before,’ says Severgnini. “Over the next five years this is set to prevent 266 hip fractures, avoiding pain for patients and saving the NHS over £4 million.”

You do not have to wait to suffer a fracture to get diagnosed. Gender is a risk factor. One in two women will have osteoporosis after 50 – but so will one in five men.

Over 50s with a family history of osteoporosis or a relative who suffered a fragility fracture are at increased risk. Other risk factors include smoking, alcohol consumption, low weight, poor diet, a history of eating disorders, ethnic background and taking certain medicines.

Early intervention can help stave off osteoporosis. Maximise bone strength from childhood to early adulthood by ‘banking’ plenty of bone in these years, so the skeleton will more easily withstand later bone loss. Take plenty of weight bearing exercise (such as walking) and eat a well balanced, calcium-rich diet. Get plenty of Vitamin D (from sunlight) and avoid faddy diets that reduce calcium or protein.

If you suspect you may be at risk, take an online risk assessment and then see your GP for further assessment, and if applicable, a Bone Density Scan which can confirm a diagnosis.

If diagnosed you will be offered drugs to strengthen your bones. There are always new drugs under development, but any new treatments will not be available for some years.

What about a cure? Severgnini says: “There is none on the horizon now, but current research findings are starting to converge and increase our knowledge, giving us hope of a cure.”

Website: www.nos.org.uk 

Online osteoporosis risk assessment: http://stopatone.nos.org.uk/online-check/

NOS Helpline: 0808 800 0035