Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2009;79(3):201-202

See related article on osteoporosis.

What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis literally means bones (“osteo”) that are porous (“porosis”), or weak. When your body loses calcium, your bones become weak and are more likely to break.

How is it diagnosed?

A type of x-ray can measure the density, or strength, of your bones. This is usually done on the bones of your hip or lower spine.

Am I at risk?

Everyone’s bones become weaker as they get older, but some people’s bones get weaker sooner than others. Some people are more likely to get osteoporosis, such as older people, women with early menopause, inactive people, and people with a personal or family history of broken bones, thyroid disease, or steroid use.

If you have osteoporosis, you have a higher risk of fracture (breaking a bone) if you fall. Therefore, it is important to lower your risk of falling. You can do this by exercising, which improves strength and balance. You can also add handrails on stairs and in bathrooms, and remove loose rugs from your home.

What can I do to prevent osteoporosis?

Be sure to get enough calcium and vitamin D. Your body needs vitamin D to help absorb and use the calcium. You can get calcium from dairy products (for example, cheese), vegetables (for example, broccoli), almonds, tofu, and drinks with added vitamins and minerals (for example, some orange juices, rice milk, and soy milk). Your body makes vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight. You can also get vitamin D from milk, some fish (for example, salmon), and drinks or cereals with added vitamins and minerals. If you do not get enough calcium or vitamin D, you should take a supplement.

Make sure you exercise (for example, walk, jog, hike, dance, or weight train) most days of the week. It is also important to quit smoking if you are a smoker and to avoid drinking a lot of alcohol.

How is it treated?

You should get at least 1,200 mg of calcium a day and at least 700 to 800 IU of vitamin D a day from supplements and your diet. You doctor may prescribe medicines called bisphosphonates (by-FOS-fonates), such as alendronate (one brand: Fosamax) and risedronate (one brand: Actonel). These medicines help decrease the risk of hip and spine fractures in women with osteoporosis. One bisphosphonate, ibandronate (one brand: Boniva), helps to decrease the risk of spine fractures.

Raloxifene (one brand: Evista) is another medicine that can help increase bone strength and lower the risk of spine fractures. Calcitonin (one brand: Miacalcin) is a nasal spray that decreases loss of both calcium and bone strength. It may also decrease spine fractures.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Academy of Family Physicians

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

The National Osteoporosis Foundation

The National Women’s Health Information Center

  • Web site:

  • Telephone: 1-800–994–9662

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