Everything You Need to Know About Osteopenia

Feb 1, 2017 at 11:00 a.m. ET

Osteopenia “is a term used to describe bone density that is somewhat lower than normal,” but not as low as full-fledged osteoporosis.

Women are four times (four times!!!) more likely than men to have osteoporosis, which those whose bones have already been weakened by osteopenia are likely to develop. Luckily, osteopenia can be treated and kept from becoming osteoporosis, especially if it is diagnosed early by a bone-density scan.

Who is most at risk for osteopenia?

According to WebMD, the most common risk factors for developing osteopenia include being a woman in general, “being thin and/or having a small frame,” having a “family history of osteoporosis,” smoking, having “a history of anorexia nervosa,” and at times “leading an inactive lifestyle.” Despite that last risk factor, many female athletes are also at risk for osteopenia.

More: What Affects Bone Health?

Why are female athletes at risk?

Female athletes are likely to develop osteopenia along with two other medical conditions, which all together are known as the female athlete triad. The triad consists of eating disorders, loss of menstruation and osteopenia. Athletes often feel pressure not only to perform well, but to look a certain way while doing it.

Frequent hard exercise can lead to low levels of estrogen production. Estrogen is a key hormone for “growth and development of reproductive organs,” as well as maintaining a healthy menstrual cycle and bone density. Maintaining a healthy diet is also key to menstrual and bone health. A combination of lowered estrogen and dangerously restrictive eating habits heighten female athletes’ risk of both osteopenia and amenorrhea (loss of periods).

What are the symptoms of osteopenia?

Osteopenia is often completely invisible until a fracture occurs. Usually, the first bones to fracture are the spine, the wrist or the hip. Other symptoms include backaches, poor posture and sometimes loss of height.

How can I prevent osteopenia?

Eating a balanced, nonrestrictive diet (preferably full of bone-enriching calcium and vitamin D) is a huge part of maintaining healthy bones. Exercise is also important, though as mentioned above, it can heighten your risk for osteopenia if done to excess. If you can, healthy amounts of strength training are a great way to increase muscle mass and keep bones strong. Quitting (or at least limiting) smoking and drinking will also lower risks of osteopenia and osteoporosis.

More: My Mom's Recent Bone Fracture Opened My Eyes to Osteoporosis

How is osteopenia treated?

Again, a healthy diet with plenty of calcium and a balanced amount of exercise play huge roles in both preventing osteopenia itself and preventing osteopenia from getting worse (and possibly developing into osteoporosis). Vitamin D supplements are often recommended, as they help the body more readily absorb calcium. Some doctors may also prescribe hormone replacement therapy to promote estrogen levels, though this treatment is usually reserved for menopausal and postmenopausal women and comes with its own risks.

Regular bone-density scans (especially if you are already in the at-risk category for weakened bones or have a family history of osteopenia and osteoporosis) are imperative in catching osteopenia early on. As mentioned above, osteopenia can definitely be treated and doesn’t have to develop into osteoporosis if you receive the proper care and find out early enough. For more resources on the treatment and prevention of osteopenia and osteoporosis, go here.

More: Osteoporosis: If You Break a Bone, Get Tested

By Ariel Wodarcyk

Originally published on HelloFlo.