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Last reviewed by Dr. Raj MD on January 12th, 2022.

What is Osteopenia?

This refers to the test result of a Bone Mineral Density (BMD) test that is lower than what the normal peak is. It is not low enough though to be classified as osteoporosis, which are fractures that happen because of bone mineral density that has been reduced. To break it down “Osteo” means bone and “Penia” means low level or deficiency of something. With osteopenia your bones have become weak and they are not as strong or dense as they use to be. When a physician speaks of BMD, they are referring to a measurement of the level of minerals in your bones. This measurement is what tells your physician just how strong and dense your bones are. This occurs most frequently in women who are post-menopausal because of the loss of estrogen but can happen at any age such as in younger women who are athletes. Although women are more prone to osteopenia it can happen to men and children.

Symptoms of Osteopenia

Unfortunately, osteopenia does not have any symptoms. There is an increase risk of breaking a bone as they become less strong and dense so this can be taken as a sign or symptom and one that you should discuss with your physician. As your bones become thinner you will not notice any change or pain.

Osteopenia Causes

As people hit middle age their bones start to become weaker and the reason is that their body is absorbing all the bone cells that are present faster than your body can make new ones. When this happens your bones lose minerals, mass, and structure. It will also increase your chance of having a bone break. You normally start losing the BMD after you reach thirty years of age so you need to make sure that you are maintaining good bone health. There are times that a person has low BMD right from their birth.

Some of the factors/causes of osteopenia may include:

  • Using a high amount of steroids to treat asthma or other medical conditions.
  • Using a high amount of chemotherapy.
  • Your body was exposed to radiation for a prolonged period of time.
  • There are cases of osteopenia reported earlier in their family.
  • Having an eating disorder or problems with their metabolism that will not allow their body to take in and use enough minerals and vitamins.
  • Anything that may contribute to bones becoming weak like consuming a lot of alcohol or aerated drinks, and smoking.
  • In women, hormonal changes at menopause.
  • Being too thin
  • Being Asian or white.
  • Not getting enough physical activity.

Osteopenia Treatment

The main treatment for osteopenia is to help prevent them from being affected by a disease even worse such as osteoporosis. Although there is no specific medications for osteopenia the physician can achieve this through medications for osteoporosis but they can have bad side effects. In addition, there are some health insurance plans that will not recognize it as a condition that needs treatment so they dol not pay for these medications. These can cost around a thousand dollars a month. Some of the medications that a physician may prescribe are:

  • Bisphosphonates which are sold using the brand names of Boniva, Fosamax and Reclast which can be injected or taken orally.
  • Raloxifene – this medication works in your body like estrogen to help you maintain BMD without some of the risks associated with hormone replacement therapy.

There are natural things that a person can do on their own.

  • Make sure that their diet is rich in foods that contain calcium such as green vegetables, fruits, and milk.
  • Taking a calcium supplement along with a vitamin D supplement.
  • Exercising regularly such as physiotherapy and cardiovascular exercises.
  • Stop drinking aerated drinks like soft drinks.
  • Stop drinking alcohol.
  • Stop smoking.

Osteopenia vs Osteoporosis

Both osteopenia and osteoporosis are related to the bones in your body but they are quite different. As mentioned osteopenia is the BMD is lower than normal but with osteoporosis is the condition in which your bones are weak internally, more prone to fractures and brittle because the BMD is reduced. Both of these are two common diseases of your skeletal system. Figure wise, osteoporosis affects more than fifty percent of all people in the United States with eighty percent of them women. Osteopenia has been recognized as a precursor to osteoporosis by the World Health Organization.

The quick facts about osteopenia are:

  • Low bone mineral density with the score of negative one point zero to negative two point five.
  • This is not a severe condition
  • There are not particular symptoms
  • It is affected by your eating habits, nutrition, lifestyle, exercise habits, etc.

The quick facts about osteoporosis are:

  • Low BMD.
  • It is a severe medical condition that is characterized by bone fractures that normally do not happen in people who are healthy such as wrist, hip, rib, etc.
  • There are symptoms like having the tendency to suffer repeatedly from fragility fractures which means that when you would have a slip-and-fall accident it may cause a fracture.
  • The causes of this medical condition can vary and there can be many causes.

Treating osteoporosis is more rigorous and sometimes it is beneficial to take vitamin D supplements if you are diagnosed with osteoporosis in addition to calcium supplements. Both of these conditions can be extremely painful to live with and can limit you in how you life in more ways than one. You will need to make sure that you modify your lifestyle to exercising more, eating healthier, giving up smoking, and drinking alcohol beverages. If you have osteoporosis you will need to be more careful to not fall and cause a fracture, especially if you are older because those fractures do not heal as fast.

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