How Your Spine Changes as You Age
|Progressive Spinal Deformity in Osteoporosis
Compression fractures of the vertebrae can lead to loss of
height and slumped shoulders.
Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information,
U.S. National Library of Medicine
As women age, it's not uncommon for their posture to become a bit hunched over. Many also experience a "loss of height"—a result of slowly getting shorter over time.
But what many women don't know is that both of these spine changes are not a natural part of getting older. They are likely connected to having osteoporosis—a disease that causes bones to become weak and break more easily. This is especially true if you are past menopause and your body is making less estrogen than it once did.
Spinal fractures are the most common type of osteoporosis-related fracture. In fact, you are twice as likely to fracture a bone in your spine (called a vertebra) as you are to break a hip or wrist.
"It's important for people to understand that spinal fractures are potentially serious in terms of loss of height and changes in the alignment of the vertebrae. They also can lead to trouble with digestion and breathing," explains Kenneth G. Saag, MD, MSc, a rheumatologist and professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Arthritis and the Center for Education and Research on Therapeutics of Musculoskeletal Disorders. "Spinal fractures are also very predictive of a person having another fracture—in a place like their hip."
Your vertebrae are relatively small, spongy bones. If having osteoporosis has weakened these bones, you are at high risk for a vertebral compression fracture. This happens when too much pressure is placed on a weak vertebra, causing it to crack. The crack can happen during something as serious as a fall, or even during everyday activities—such as simply lifting a bag of groceries or coughing.
A vertebral compression fracture may cause pain—but sometimes it isn't bad enough to send you to the doctor.
"The challenge is that there are a lot of reasons why you have back pain. People might not recognize that the pain they are having is connected to osteoporosis," explains Dr. Saag. "As many as two-thirds of the people who have experienced a fracture in their spine don't present for medical care right away. It can be months or years before they recognize that they have fractured a bone in the spine."
Aside from pain, other symptoms of a spinal fracture include a hunched posture or a loss of height.
If you suspect you've had a spinal fracture, talk to your doctor. During the appointment, your doctor likely will examine the alignment of your spine and possibly order an X-ray and/or bone density test.
Recovery from your first spinal fracture may simply involve rest and pain medications. But severe pain or multiple fractures may need to be addressed with surgery.
"The bones in your spine tend to be more active in terms of breaking down rapidly, which makes them susceptible to fractures. As a result, it's one of the earliest places we see osteoporosis develop," says Dr. Saag. "But the good news is that these bones are also more responsive than some other bones to medicine that inhibits the breakdown of bone."
If you've had a vertebral compression fracture, it's important that you take steps to avoid future breaks. That means treating your osteoporosis with good nutrition, exercise and medication. Talk to your doctor about what steps you should take to keep your spinal bones strong.