Beware of the Brittle Backbone

Each year World Osteoporosis Day (20 October) is a reminder of how serious a problem osteoporosis really is.

Osteoporosis literally means porous bones. It’s a disease that occurs when our bones lose minerals – principally calcium; and the body can’t replace these minerals fast enough to keep the bones healthy. The bones become fragile and brittle. They break and crack more easily.

All bones are at risk, but the most common fractures occur in the spine, the hip and the wrist.
This year the focus of the World Osteoporosis Day global campaign is spinal bone health, with the main theme “Don’t miss the signs of a breaking spine”.

Spine or vertebral fractures are often undiagnosed and untreated; and although they can cause considerable pain and disability, they are often ignored as being simply due to back pain from muscle strain or arthritis.

The three major signs of vertebral fractures (or a broken spine) are height loss, back pain and a stoop. It’s estimated that a spinal fracture occurs every 22 seconds worldwide. In Australia one in two women and one in three men over the age of 60 will suffer a fracture due to osteoporosis. So, it’s worthwhile taking reasonable steps to avoid being part of these statistics.

Both lifestyle and genetic factors have a role in determining bone density and strength. We can’t do much about choosing our parents, but there are other simple self care actions we can take.

Firstly, be active. Regular weight bearing exercise is essential. And it doesn’t have to be too complicated – walking or dancing is fine – preferably for about 30 minutes on all or most days of the week. At, the Osteoporosis Australia website, you’ll get some good ideas on how an investment in exercise will pay a healthy bones dividend.

Of course, ideally the exercise needs to begin during the growth phases of childhood and adolescence; don’t wait until you’re old and it all becomes too difficult.

Secondly, if you’re a smoker, quit! As well as all the other, perhaps better recognised, health problems caused by smoking, it’s a significant risk factor for osteoporosis.

With respect to diet, adequate calcium intake is essential. The recommended daily intake of calcium is about 1000 mg for young adults, and for teenagers and older adults is about 1300 mg. Three or four serves of dairy foods each day will generally achieve these aims.

We also need vitamin D to ensure sufficient calcium is effectively absorbed; and our best source of vitamin D is sunlight (vitamin D forms in the skin when it is exposed to UV rays from sunlight). Most Australians achieve adequate vitamin D levels through the sun exposure they receive during typical day-to-day outdoor activities. So the need for vitamin D is no excuse for sunbaking.

In the warmer months, just a few minutes daily exposure to sunlight on the hands, arms and face is quite sufficient. In the winter months in the southern parts of Australia a few hours exposure, spread over the week, may be needed.

For those of us who just can’t manage calcium intake by way of our diet or don’t see enough of the sun, there are appropriate calcium and vitamin D supplements available.

Ask your pharmacist for more advice. And, for the best osteoporosis prevention strategies check out the Osteoporosis fact card at pharmacies providing the Pharmaceutical Society’s Self Care health information. For the nearest location, phone 1300 369 772 or go to and follow the link to Self Care Pharmacy Finder.

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