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Paul Matz, MD, St. Luke's Hospital

Help for women with osteoporosis

Women account for 80-percent of Americans who have osteoporosis, or the thinning of bone tissue, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Osteoporosis of the spine is common in post-menopausal women due to lower estrogen levels and can lead to serious health conditions.

Compression fractures occur when the vertebrae, the bones that protect the spinal column, become brittle and unable to support your body weight or movement.

The fractures can be painful, and multiple fractures may lead to kyphosis, where the spine tips forward, creating a curvature of the spine. The spine may also tilt sideways, resulting in scoliosis. Both deformities often cause pain in the back muscles and spine joints as the body compensates for the changes.

Most often when compression fractures caused by osteoporosis do not cause spinal cord injury, the osteoporosis is treated with prescription medications and calcium supplements. When these treatments have not been effective in reducing pain after several weeks, two minimally invasive procedures - vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty - may help.

Vertebroplasty involves the injection of bone cement into fractured or weak vertebrae using a needle. Kyphoplasty is similar, but it involves the injection of a small balloon that first widens the spaces needing the cement.

With severe deformity of the spine, such as kyphosis, extensive surgical correction of the spine may help with pain but carries some risk. Additionally, if bone pushes into the spinal canal, you may need surgery to remove the bone and fuse the vertebrae together to stabilize the spine.

All too often women are not even aware they have osteoporosis until they experience a fracture. By that time, the disease is often in its advanced stages and the damage is severe.

You can help prevent osteoporosis by establishing a lifelong program of weight-bearing exercise like walking and running, eating calcium rich foods like leafy green vegetables and low-fat dairy products and taking calcium and Vitamin D supplements. Drinking alcohol in moderation and not smoking are also important choices for overall bone health. These measures involve adjustments in lifestyle but will help prevent injury to the spine and enhance recovery from spinal conditions.

Paul Matz, MD, specializes in neurosurgery at St. Luke's Hospital. Call 314-878-2888 or visit his Meet the Doctor page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 30, 2009.