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Is your aching back a sign of osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is called the silent crippler because many women don’t realize they have it until a bone breaks—a sign that the disease is already at an advanced stage.

While most women know when they might have broken a hip or a wrist, a fracture of one of the vertebrae (the segments of the spine) can go unrecognized.

In a spinal column weakened by osteoporosis, a vertebral fracture can occur simply because normal body weight is too much for the spine to support. The resulting break is called a compression fracture. A compression fracture can occur without a fall. In fact, it can occur in the course of an activity as seemingly harmless as bending to pick up a newspaper.

The intensity and duration of the pain from a compression fracture are different for everyone. Some people may not even realize they’ve fractured a vertebra, writing their discomfort off as “a backache.”

Usually, the patient experiences mild to severe pain at the site of the fracture. The pain could radiate out to the limbs, depending on whether one vertebra is fractured or several, and it may be accompanied by muscle spasms.

In most cases, the pain is severe for the first one to four weeks after the fracture and then lessens over time. A chronic backache in the mid- to lower spine can last from six months to a year and is largely due to muscle spasm and ligament strain.

Perhaps the most important symptom is a loss of height, which usually occurs in bursts of one inch or more. A woman with osteoporosis can lose as much as two inches’ height in just a few weeks. Eventually, she may lose eight inches or more from her adult height.

Traditional treatment for a compression fracture has included bed rest and a back brace, jacket or corset to help relieve pain. It usually takes six to eight weeks for it to set, and up to 12 weeks for it to heal completely. If the bone is pinching a nerve, corrective surgery may be needed. One newer treatment showing promise is percutaneous vertebroplasty, in which a medical-grade cement is injected though a needle into a painful fractured vertebral body. This stabilizes the fracture and allows the patient to move around much more quickly.

Because osteoporosis can’t be completely reversed, prevention is extremely important. Go for a diet high in calcium, and engage in regular weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, weight training and stair climbing. Discuss the best preventive plan for you with your doctor.