Slip, fall, broken bone? Signs of Osteoporosis

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Slipping on the ice is just one worrisome aspect of wintertime. Breaking a bone during a slip and fall is an even worse scenario.

A bone break that occurs during a fall while walking is typically known as a “fragility fracture,” which may signal the start of osteoporosis or other bone health issues. About half of all women and around one quarter of all men will suffer a fragility fracture in their lifetime. To get a better understanding of how to take care of your bones and how you can protect them – before, during and after a nasty tumble – we talked to the University of Chicago Medicine’s Kimberly Martin, DNP, APN-C, a nurse practitioner who works in the medical center’s Bone Health Clinic. To build strong bones calcium has always been considered king. However, not all calcium sources are created equal. So how can one determine the best source? Is cow’s milk okay? Or is it better to get calcium from vegetables? According to Martin, it’s all about doing what is best for your diet.

“We tell our patients to look at all sources for getting calcium into the bones. You can get calcium through green leafy vegetables, some proteins, beans and things like that. So you actually don’t have to drink milk. The key is having a balanced diet,” said Martin. “Many people are lactose intolerant, so we encourage patients to look at all available resources to get their calcium levels up.”

Building strong bones, however, isn’t just a matter of consuming enough calcium. Vitamin D, which is found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, also plays a significant role.

“What you put into your body is a big one for bone health,” said Martin. “A lot of folks will take calcium and forget about the vitamin D. But vitamin D is what fills the little holes in the bones, so you need both.” 

If you are getting enough calcium and vitamin D then healthy bones should be a given, right? Not necessarily. According to Martin, genetics, getting older and a variety of health conditions, especially Type 2 diabetes, can cause bones to thin.

To determine whether a person has the bone disease osteoporosis, doctors and nurse practitioners like Martin will order a bone density scan. A patient with a fragility fracture from a low-energy fall like slipping or falling off a curve gives them their first clue of a bone health problem.

“We’ll ask patients about their family history and history of fragility fractures in their parents or grandparents,” said Martin. “What types of medications are they on? Some antipsychotics can cause osteoporosis. Some medications they take on a routine basis for their Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure may also cause osteoporosis.”

Once bone density signals osteoporosis, bone health is taken into account on two levels. Martin says that calcium and vitamin D levels that are either too low or too high will have to be corrected before treatment can begin. Typically, most patients she sees have low levels of vitamin D, which can be corrected through supplements (about 2,000 units a day) and more sun exposure.

After bones are healthy enough following a fracture, a patient will typically start on a medication. Clinicians will also recommend patients follow specific self-care routines such as a better diet and exercise.

“It’s things like walking and increasing activity, because the more you use the bone, the better off you are,” said Martin. “Go swimming. Lift light weights or try others things you can do on your own that are low energy! The important thing is you get out there and stay consistent.”

Orthopaedic Bone Health

Clinical care providers at the University of Chicago Medicine’s Bone Health Clinic work to identify, evaluate and treat patients with osteoporosis or low bone density related fractures.

Read more about your bone health