Osteoporosis is a disease in which low mineral density causes severe bone loss, while osteopenia is low bone density that is not severe enough to be considered osteoporosis, according to WebMD. Osteopenia may progress to osteoporosis, which increases a person's susceptibility to painful fractures. Bone density testing can help doctors detect osteopenia, so they can advise patients on how to make preventative lifestyle changes.
In people with osteoporosis, the rate of bone tissue growth is too slow to balance bone loss, Mayo Clinic states. The bones become weak and brittle, but symptoms may not manifest until the person suffers a collapsed vertebra or fracture. Possible symptoms include back pain, a stooped posture and gradual height loss. The spine, hips and wrists are common fracture sites, as ongoing deterioration makes the bones so vulnerable that they may break from minor falls or strain, such as coughing or bending.
Doctors often use conservative treatments, such as exercise programs, to stop the progression of bone loss, but they can also prescribe medications that stimulate the growth of new bone, WebMD notes. A typical exercise program involves three to four weekly sessions of weight-bearing activities, such as walking or jogging, which increase strength and balance. To prevent osteoporosis, doctors advise people to exercise regularly, consume 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day and consume 600 to 800 international units a day.
Bone mineral density is the amount of calcium in the bones, and measuring it helps doctors determine a patient's risk of bone fractures, says SpineUniverse. Doctors also use bone mineral density tests to diagnose osteopenia and osteoporosis. The lower a patient's score, the greater degree of bone loss they have.
Women are more likely than men to suffer from low bone mass, especially after menopause, with Asian and Caucasian women at highest risk, reports SpineUniverse. Patients with a family history of bone mass loss face a highly increased risk of developing osteoporosis. Certain diseases, such as hyperthyroidism, Cushing's Syndrome and hyperparathyroidism, also increase a person's risk of losing bone mass. Other risk factors include a diet lacking in calcium and vitamin D, excessive alcohol or caffeine intake, smoking and lack of exercise.