Osteoporosis: If you break a bone, get tested

Jun 25, 2012 at 12:38 p.m. ET

The National Bone Health Alliance (NBHA) says that every year, there are 2 million bone breaks in the US caused by osteoporosis, a disease characterized by low bone mass and deterioration of bone tissue, which makes bones fragile. But most patients with a bone break are not tested for the disease and at risk for more debilitating fractures. The campaign, 2Million2Many.org, is calling for a simple solution.

Woman with broken hand

Bone breaks in people over 50 can have serious consequences and create additional expenses for the health care system, NBHA reports. One-quarter of patients with a hip fracture end up in a nursing home, one-half never regain previous function and one-quarter die within a year of the hip fracture. The organization's 2Million2Many campaign is urging people who are 50 and over, with a bone fracture, to request a test for osteoporosis.

It's up to you to request a test

Why should the onus be on the patient? Bone breaks are usually treated by orthopedic surgeons who worry about the repair of the bone, while primary care doctors worry more about the overall health of each patient, says Dr. Robert Lindsay, chief of internal medicine at Helen Hayes Hospital and professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University.

"Often when the primary care physician sees a patient, the priority is the complaint the person has that day. In the short time available for the consultation, other things can get lost, including thinking about a bone density test," he says, adding people need to be proactive and make the request.

The test only takes a few minutes to perform and is non-invasive and painless, Lindsay says. "Health care professionals have been slow at connecting the dots — that a broken bone may mean osteoporosis and that a broken bone increases the risk for more breaks in the future. The cost to an institution is not really an issue, since the test is relatively inexpensive and covered by insurance."

Course of treatment for osteoporosis

NBHA says diagnosing osteoporosis can then be followed by treatment, reducing the risk for more serious breaks. Several medicines have been shown in clinical trials to reduce the risk of further breaks, says Lindsay.

"These medicines can slow bone loss or help rebuild bone, and mostly seem to work best when accompanied by improvements in calcium and vitamin D intake and where possible by improved activity. It is also important to reduce the risk of falls, and we use referrals to physical therapy to help with that, by improving strength, balance and mobility."

Calcium and vitamin D protect your bones

Prevention is key in the fight against low bone density and osteoporosis, so adopt healthy behaviors early. Lindsay recommends adequate calcium and vitamin D, weight-bearing exercise and elimination or reduction in risky behaviors such as smoking and excess alcohol intake.

More on bone health

How to keep your bones healthy
Tips to prevent osteoporosis
Video: Fitness tips to prevent osteoporosis