Osteoporosis symptoms and treatment | Looking after your bones | ͵͵


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Although over 3 million people in the UK are living with osteoporosis, worryingly few people know they have it until they break a bone. Find out what affects your risk of osteoporosis and how you can treat it. 

What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a common long-term condition that causes bones to lose strength and become more fragile. Fragile bones are more likely to break easily, even in normal daily activities. The bones in your wrist, hip and spine are particularly vulnerable.

Bone is a living tissue and new bone replaces old bone throughout life. But as we get older, the cells that build new bone can’t work as quickly as the cells that remove old bone. This leads to an overall loss of bone tissue, which makes bones weaker and more fragile. 

About 1 in 2 women and 1 in 9 men over 50 will fracture a bone because of osteoporosis, and there are more than 500,000 fractures every year due to condition, so it's important to keep your bones healthy.

What affects your risk of osteoporosis?

There's no single cause of osteoporosis. Your risk of developing it is linked to factors that can lead to weak bones, which include:

  • Family history – you're more likely to have osteoporosis if you have a family history of osteoporosis or if one of your parents has broken a hip.
  • Age – you're more likely to have osteoporosis if you're aged 50 or over.
  • Gender – osteoporosis is more common in women because they have. smaller bones on average, and lose oestrogen during menopause
  • Body weight – having a low body weight can increase your chances of having osteoporosis.
  • Certain medical conditions – such as rheumatoid arthritis, hyperthyroidism and Crohn's disease.
  • Certain medications – such as steroids and some treatments for Crohn's disease.
  • Lifestyle factors – low physical activity, smoking, excessive alcohol, lack of calcium and vitamin D.

You can identify your own risk of developing osteoporosis by using the Royal Osteoporosis Society's risk checker online test.

What are the symptoms of osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is known as 'the silent condition' as it has no symptoms and you can’t feel your bones getting weaker. This means that osteoporosis usually goes undetected until you break a bone.

There are some signs that you can look out for which can mean the bones in your back have weakened. If you notice any of the following then it's best to speak to your doctor:

  • severe back pain
  • your spine has become curved
  • you have lost height.

How is osteoporosis treated?

Osteoporosis treatments may include prescription medications, calcium and vitamin D supplements, as well as lifestyle changes.

Medications are commonly prescribed if you're diagnosed with osteoporosis. They can be highly effective at treating the condition, and can make a huge difference to people's lives, as they help strengthen bones gradually over time and prevent fractures.

The reduction in oestrogen in the years following menopause causes rapid bone loss, which can lead to osteoporosis. Some people can take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to replace the lost oestrogen in their bodies.

What types of exercises are best for my bones?

It may sound surprising, but if you have osteoporosis, or are at risk of getting it, you should do more exercise rather than less.

Weight-bearing exercises are the best for your bones. These exercises involve standing up and moving your feet and legs – for example, brisk walking, dancing and running.

Making your muscles stronger can protect your bones and improve your balance. Muscle-strengthening exercises don’t have to involve you lifting weights at a gym. There are simple exercises you can do in the comfort of your own home using items from around the house, such as tins of food or bottles of water.

How else can I look after my bones?

Eat calcium-rich foods

Calcium is the main building block for bones and gives bones their strength and structure. Our body's ability to absorb calcium reduces as we get older, so it's important to make sure you're getting enough calcium in later life.

Eating calcium-rich foods is the best way to get calcium into your body. It's recommended that adults have 700mg of calcium each day. Try adding some calcium-rich foods to your meals or have them as a snack. Calcium-rich foods include:

  • milk
  • cheese
  • yoghurt
  • calcium-enriched soya products
  • leafy green vegetables
  • dried fruit

Speak with your doctor if you think you're not getting enough calcium from your diet, as they may recommend you take a calcium supplement. 

Make sure you're getting enough vitamin D

Vitamin D helps your bones absorb calcium. If you don't get enough then your body doesn't absorb the calcium needed for strong bones.

The main source of vitamin D is from our skin's exposure to sunlight. Most people get enough in summer by spending short amounts of time in the sun without suncream – although you shouldn't spend too long in the sun without suncream on, and you shouldn't let your skin redden or burn. A small amount of vitamin D is also found naturally in some foods (e.g. oily fish, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals).

Most people don't get enough vitamin D from sunlight in winter and it's difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone. Speak to your GP to see if they'd recommend you taking a daily vitamin D supplement.

Try to eat a healthy, balanced diet

Try to eat meals that have food from the four main food groups, which are:

  • fruit and vegetables – such as apples or broccoli 
  • carbohydrates – such as bread, potatoes or pasta
  • dairy products – such as milk, yoghurt or cheese
  • proteins – such as beans, eggs or meat

Quit smoking and reduce how much alcohol you drink

Research shows that both smoking and regularly drinking too much alcohol can lead to bone loss and increase the risk of breaking a bone.

If you've smoked or drank a lot of alcohol in the past, your bones may have weakened over time. It's very important that you get enough calcium and vitamin D and exercise regularly to keep your bones as healthy as possible.

Stay at a healthy body weight

Keeping a healthy body weight can help to keep your bones healthy. Low body weight means you'll likely have smaller bones, which tend to be more fragile. It also means there's not a lot of body fat and muscle to protect you if you fall.

If you're malnourished, as well as not getting enough energy from your diet, you might not be eating enough nutrients that help build healthy bones.

Find out more about malnutrition

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Last updated: Apr 08 2024

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