Physical therapy helps people afflicted with osteoporosis

Date Published: 
March 3, 2017

Osteoporosis is one of the most pervasive health problems in the U.S. today. You may not realize it, but about 10 million people in this country have already been diagnosed with osteoporosis. Another 44 million have low bone density and are at risk.

What really should drive the point home is a number that might surprise you: Half of all adults age 50 or older — that’s 54 million people — are at risk of fracturing a bone and need to be concerned about their bone health. In fact, more than 3 million new cases are expected to be diagnosed this year.

So many people are impacted by osteoporosis that it is very likely that as you read this article you or someone you care about is already at risk or has already been diagnosed. That’s why we’re going to look at osteoporosis, what it means, how it occurs and treatment options that could make an important difference.

Osteoporosis means “porous bones.” It is a disease that results when your body is making too little bone, loses too much bone or, in some cases, both. When this happens, you develop fragile, weak bones that are at risk of breaking.

A break can occur from something as serious as a fall or something as minor as a bump or even a hard sneeze. Many people have no idea that they have osteoporosis until a bone breaks. That’s why it’s called “the silent disease.” With bone loss, there is no sign.

Yet osteoporosis causes about 1.5 million fractures every year. Many doctors will order a bone-density test for patients to see if there is a problem because of the silent nature of this disease and the damage it can cause.

People with osteoporosis most often suffer breaks of the wrist, hip and spine. Of course, all kinds of fractures can and do occur, but these are the ones that are most often seen by medical professionals.

While women are at the highest risk, both men and women are diagnosed with osteoporosis, and while it’s typically diagnosed in older people, it can occur at any age. Women who are Caucasian or Asian are more likely to be diagnosed with osteoporosis, as are small and thin women.

But there are many risk factors, including heredity, an inactive lifestyle, long-term confinement to bed or dietary issues, such as a lack of proper vitamin D and calcium in your diet, that can lease to this disease. Some women develop osteoporosis due to the bone mass loss that can occur from menopause. Drinking too much alcohol and cigarette smoking are also amongst the culprits.

What I hear from most people is that their biggest question is what they can do once they’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis. The answer often involves physical therapy.

If you’ve suffered a broken bone because of osteoporosis, you’ve very likely seen or are seeing a physical therapist to help with your recovery. If you haven’t suffered a break, there’s a very high probability that your doctor already discussed physical therapy with you as part of a treatment plan.

Why physical therapy? In addition to diet and, in some cases, medication, too, the greatest numbers of medical professionals have found that it’s important to have their patients see a properly trained physical therapist to receive a personalized plan that includes hands-on treatment and a personalized program to help prevent injury.

Kathy M. Shipp, PT, MHS, PhD — Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Aging & Human Development at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C, who is also a spokeswoman for the American Physical Therapy Association and the National Osteoporosis Foundation and a recognized expert in the field — says that physical therapy is an effective non-surgical treatment for osteoporosis that may help restore healthy movement, function and bone strength.

When you’ve been referred to a physical therapist, you can expect that your physical therapist will start by consulting with your doctor to get a full picture of your health in order to create a customized treatment plan that is right for your particular needs.

The idea is to put the right elements in place to achieve important goals that will likely include helping to prevent any injury before it happens and a focus on those critical areas of function, healthy movement and bone strength.

The plan will likely involve exercises that might include low-impact exercises, such as aerobics or walking. If you are very active, it is possible that some high-impact exercises, such as racquetball or tennis and brisk walking, may be included in your plan.

You will also likely find that some of the exercises that are incorporated in your plan are designed specifically to work your muscles. Working your muscles is important because it can help slow down the bone loss that occurs with osteoporosis, and building muscle strength can help prevent a fall and the fractures that can come with one. Muscle exercises might involve using elastic bands and weights.

At the end of each appointment, your physical therapist might also give you some homework. Yes — homework, because there may be some exercises that you will be able to do at home to contribute to improving your health.

Don’t be surprised if your physical therapist talks with you about your home life and your daily routine to be of help in offering you guidance on safer ways of doing those everyday activities in a manner that will assist you in avoiding fractures. For example, your physical therapist might help you with a better approach to how you lie down, get out of bed or get up from sitting in a chair.

There is no cure for osteoporosis, but improvements come with consistent effort. You might do well with an ongoing program after you have completed your last physical-therapy session.

Find out if your physical therapist offers inexpensive, supervised exercise programs that allow you to exercise under the watchful eye and direction of a trained professional. It also provides you with the opportunity to enjoy the social interaction that is an added benefit of such a program.

This may be a confidence-booster, whether or not you have had a fracture, and it will certainly contribute to important goals related to improved function, movement and bone strength.

Ultimately, you need to be proactive. Take the bull by the horns, and take positive steps toward improving your health and quality of life. Emerson once said, “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” I am always going to advocate for your good health and the best life can offer.

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.