By Piper Peterson, PT
Osteopenia is one of two words used to describe the density of your bones, the other being Osteoporosis. Bones reach their normal “peak” density by age 30. Beginning in middle age, bone cells are reabsorbed by the body faster than new bone is made so that bones have less mass (density) and become weaker. As this bone density becomes lower in relation to that normal “peak” density of a young person, you are said to have osteopenia. Osteopenia is not a disease or a diagnosis. Osteopenia is a reflection of the relative condition of your bones compared to a standard, and, unfortunately, there is not always agreement on exactly what that standard is. However, if your bone density becomes very low due to bone loss compared to the optimal, you are on your way to developing osteoporosis which is a diagnosis and can result in catastrophic fractures.
Osteopenia is a word that refers to the density of your bones. “Osteo” means bone and “penia” means low in quantity”. When we are around 30 years old our bones have their highest density and strength. However, beginning in middle age, bone cells are reabsorbed by the body faster than new bone is made, and our bones gradually become thinner and less strong. This is not a disease process. It is a description of what happens naturally. Unfortunately, osteopenia can be a precursor to the disease of osteoporosis which is an excessively high degree of bone loss where bones become brittle and more likely to break. If you want to decrease the possibility of developing osteoporosis, one of the most effective ways is to do weight-bearing exercises such as walking, hiking, climbing stairs, and dancing. Adding exercises with light weights or elastic bands will help the bones in the upper body.
Osteopenia has no symptoms. Women are more likely to develop it early on because of hormonal changes which speed up bone loss and because they usually have a lower peak density than men. However, men also lose bone density as they age, just at a slower rate.