Health

Doctor warns of ‘the silent disease’

Exercise, supplements, early detection keys to fighting osteoporosis

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Patty Thewes is glad she was in an automobile accident in January 2016.

“It was kind of a godsend,” she says.

Thewes, 64, broke her sacrum, the center bone of the pelvis, in the crash. A resulting MRI revealed she had osteoporosis, something she thought she wouldn’t have to worry about for years to come.

“I was pretty active, and usually if you’re active and you’re taking your calcium, you think you’re OK,” the Castle Rock resident says. “I figured I was good to go until my late 70s.”

Like Thewes, Gary Harrison of Elizabeth knew he had low bone density after he saw a doctor for hip problems in 2012. But he didn’t realize he had osteoporosis until 2014 when he reached for a shoe and broke his rib.

“To be honest, I was surprised,” Harrison, 62, says. “I never thought men had (osteoporosis) until I found out I had it.”

Their reactions are common with many patients Dr. Kathy Vidlock sees.

Osteoporosis is a weakening of bone tissue often resulting in life-threatening fractures. Among people over the age of 50, it affects one of every three women and one in five men, Vidlock says. But many are still stunned to discover they have it.

“A lot of people are really surprised,” Vidlock, of Parker, says. “There’s a misconception that it should cause pain, but it doesn’t unless you have a fracture.”

Sitting in her office at Sky Ridge Medical Center, Vidlock says the most important factor in preventing or treating “the silent disease” is detection, which is particularly difficult with osteoporosis because it has no symptoms.

Any woman who has gone through menopause and any patient over 50 being treated for a bone fracture should have a bone-density scan, Vidlock says. The DEXA scan — short for dual energy X-ray absorptiometry — can be performed by a patient’s physician to measure the bone density in the spine, hip and wrist and doesn’t require preauthorization from insurance providers.

“The problem is that most patients don’t have a bone-density scan when they have a fracture, or some know thatit’s low and don’t get treated,” she says. “Then by the time I see them, it’s worse.”

Bone density begins to decrease when a person reaches their 20s. While that may make osteoporosis seem inevitable, Vidlock says there are steps to take to slow or prevent the disease.

One is medication. Harrison and Thewes both take injections of Forteo, a drug proven to promote bone density. But the drug, the only one on the market that creates bone mass, is expensive at $1,100 per month, and can produce a host of side effects.

Even without medication, Vidlock says there are steps adults can take to slow or prevent the disease.

For starters, Vidlock recommends all adults make sure they are getting enough calcium and vitamin D. Most patients are aware of calcium’s role in maintaining healthy bones, but many don’t know they need vitamin D to help the body absorb calcium.

Another important step to take, literally, is weight-bearing exercise.

“Your bone tissue is really active,” she says, “it’s just like a muscle.”

A daily walk or hike, or lifting weights stresses bone tissue, which responds by growing in much the same way a muscle does after a workout. Cardiovascular exercise like biking or swimming may be great for the heart, Vidlock says, but it doesn’t stress bone tissue enough to promote growth.

But again, Vidlock stresses that the most important factor in treating osteoporosis is finding out if you’re at risk of having it.

“The takeaway is: `do you really know if you’re at risk?’ ” she says. “It’s worth a visit to your physician to find out.”

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