That constant ache in your back could be osteoporosis – even if you’re still in your 30s.
The brittle bone disease is usually associated with women over 50, but sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy diets and Vitamin D deficiencies are seeing early-stage osteoporosis pop up in men and women as young as 35.
“It’s become an epidemic,” says Dr Amit Nath Mishra, senior orthopaedic consultant at Max Hospital, Noida. “The numbers have shot up in the last decade and almost 30% of the patients under 40 that come to us today have early-stage osteoporosis.”
Osteoporosis is a silent disease and most people don’t realise their bones are weakening until a spinal disc collapses or they suffer compound fractures after a simple fall.
Among the red flags to watch out for are acute Vitamin D deficiency combined with chronic pain in the back or legs, since Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium.
Sakshi Anand, 29, was only 15 when her cortisol levels shot up, leading to weakened bones. As part of her treatment plan, she began to exercise regularly, eat better, take calcium supplements and get plenty of sunshine and is now on the road to recovery. (Sushil Kumar/HT Photo)
“You also have a higher chance of developing early-stage osteoporosis if you have or had an endocrine disease such as disorder of the parathyroid glands, thyroid dysfunction, diabetes or kidney disease, or if you have taken steroids to treat conditions such as asthma, premature menopause, testosterone failure or any other hormonal disorder,” says Dr SV Madhu, head of the endocrinology department at Delhi’s Guru Teg Bahadur hospital.
“If you spend most of your time sitting at a desk, indoors, and you have aches in your limbs or back, you must get a bone densitometry test,” Dr Mishra adds.
For Mumbai-based construction supervisor Rajesh Patil, 35, the trouble began four years ago. A sedentary lifestyle combined with long hours of standing and no exercise at all combined to weaken his lower body.
“I was in near-constant pain for 18 months before I saw a doctor. I ignored it because it was mild and that was a big mistake,” he says.
By 33, the pain had become so severe that he had to see a doctor, and was diagnosed with osteonecrosis, a condition marked by low blood supply to the bones, and osteopenia.
The pain had been caused largely by the osteonecrosis, as a result of which Patil had been moving around even less than usual, worsening his osteopenia.
“When I saw his x-ray and MRI scans, I couldn’t believe I was looking at the bones of a young man,” says Dr Badiyani, who treated Patil. “If the osteopenia had developed into full-blown osteoporosis, he would undoubtedly have suffered fractures in his lower body. As it is, he needed hip replacement surgery and months of physiotherapy and vitamin and calcium supplements before he regained his health.”
How to fix it
“We are seeing a growing number of spine, hip and forearm fractures among people in their 30s as a result of early-stage osteoporosis,” says Dr Rajesh Badiyani, orthopedic surgeon at the Fortis hospital in Navi Mumbai.
Additional factors causing weak bones in young adults include higher incidences of smoking, and teenagers crash-dieting.
“Smoking leads to low bone metabolism and decrease in bone mineral density,” says Dr DD Tanna, orthopedic surgeon at Mumbai’s Jaslok hospital. “Dieting causes youngsters to end up deficient in proteins and vitamins at a crucial juncture when their bones should be growing and strengthening.”
Regular exercise, a nutritious diet, calcium supplements and plenty of sunshine helped Sakshi Anand, 29, deal with her premature osteoporosis.
She was only 15 when her cortisol hormone levels went through the roof, leading to weakened bones and Cushing’s disease. “I began to put on weight at a terrifying rate,” Anand says. “By the time I was diagnosed, I weighed about 130 kg and my condition had got so bad that my shins would ache when I walked.”
Today, Anand weighs a healthy 54 kg and is osteopaenic, a pre-osteoporosis condition in which the bones themselves have strengthened, but the body is still not absorbing as much calcium as it ought to.
“If the cause of the osteoporosis is hormonal and is identified and treated, it will most likely reverse the condition,” says Dr Madhu of GTB hospital. “After that, all the person needs to do is maintain a good diet — high in protein and calcium — and exercise regularly and they will have healthy bones.”
Balance is key
The first step is to eliminate pain. “Many people diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis think the more they work out, the better they’ll get, but this approach can cause muscle fatigue,” said Lipi Verma, senior physiotherapist at AktivOrtho, New Delhi. “Taking care of the pain is the first step. Physiotherapy can help here, especially for people with osteopaenia.”
Start with low-stress routines like head rotations, shoulder movements and movements of other joints along with proper breathing. “Later, you can move on to strength training and balance or agility training like standing on one leg and running an obstacle course,” Verma says.