Living with Osteoporosis: how to adapt after the diagnosis

Many of us take lifelong preventative measures against the likelihood of osteoporosis. We know enough now to understand causes, treatments, and best practice for avoidance. However, whatever we do, bones tend to weaken over time, and even if we take precautions, we may find ourselves in the precarious position of being on the verge of osteoporosis, or even caught midstride by a sudden fracture.

Once we know our condition there are still many things we can do to alleviate the effects by changing the way we live. The truth of the matter is that we can live for a long time with osteoporosis and never have a fracture, or continue to live well even after such an event. The key is understanding our condition and adapting our lifestyle accordingly.

Taking the basic steps for improving bone strength

Exercise: Amongst the exercises that are good for osteoporosis are light aerobics, weight training, calisthenics, yoga, tai chi, etc. Improving strength and balance are key. If you’ve had a fracture, check with your doctor as to what may be beneficial and what to avoid. But most importantly, undertake exercise regularly to improve endurance and posture. Walking and line dancing are considered weight-bearing exercises because you are bearing your own body weight. So if you’ve not walked regularly in the past, it’s time to change that. In addition, quitting smoking and cutting down on alcohol are also on the list of things to change.

Calcium: Calcium is the major building block of bone tissue and strengthens and hardens bones. Women aged 50 and older, and men aged 70 and older, need a total of 1,200 milligrams daily. That includes good daily servings of milk, yogurt, cheese or calcium-fortified citrus juice or cereal. Vitamin D is important for helping with the absorption of calcium, so if you have avoided the sun in the past, time to get out there and warm up the body with a good dose of sunlight during the “safe” times as often as you can.

Preventing falls

  • Rule number one (especially women) wear sensible shoes.
  • Remove anything from your home that is a tripping hazard such as rugs, electrical cords, frayed stair carpets, etc. Make use of non-slip mats under loose rugs.
  • Fit handrails on both sides of the stairs and make sure there are no floor areas too highly polished.
  • Keep all areas well lit. Lower wall lamps so that they are easier to reach if you have to change a light bulb; avoid going up ladders.
  • Get up more slowly from your bed or a chair; dizziness can cause a fall.
  • Try not to have to reach far for any object you may need; keep things close or on an easily reachable level.
  • Keep warm. Cold muscles can cause pulled ligaments or fail to move into motion fast enough, causing you to stagger.
  • Make sure you have a personal alarm installed in case you fall. You must be able to alert people to your predicament.
  • Take care when lifting things: have a friend help you carry your shopping, or have it delivered. If you do carry it, make sure you have the same weight in each hand.
  • Get support from family and friends – learn to swallow your pride and ask. People are willing to help, and very often like to do so. Some people become stubborn about this change, but far better to have someone help you wash the windows than spend a month in hospital.
  • You may even have to move to a home where there are no steps. This is a difficult change for many, but probably the best decision in the longer term.
  • If you need help with washing and dressing, you need to make arrangements with someone who can help you, from employing a helper to perhaps moving to a facility where assisted living is available. Be practical about your changed condition and the options that are available.
  • Think before you move: don’t bend forwards suddenly and avoid twisting movements. When lifting anything always check the weight first and remember to bend your knees and keep your back straight. It’s the ordinary and the mundane that might catch you unawares such as lifting something out of the oven or the washing machine.
  • Don’t be in a hurry – take you time to answer that phone!
  • Some exercises that you may have enjoyed before, you will have to give up. Jogging is often a favourite that you have to let go, because it can jolt the spine too much. Replace it with walking or a less high impact exercise.
  • You may have to sleep with a pillow between you knees to support your hips and lower back.

Areas where you need to make particular concessions

The bathroom:

  • Make sure you have a non-slip rubber mat at the bottom of the bath and also on the floor as you step out of the bath.
  • Also ensure you install good grip handle bars on both sides of the bath.
  • You can also obtain a bath chair to place in the bath, to be used in conjunction with a hand-held shower. Very useful if you have trouble getting out of a bath.
  • Install a night light in your bathroom to prevent stumbling around in the dark.
  • It’s not cheap, but if you can install a walk-in shower you can eliminate the bath problems entirely.
  • Ensure shelving is at a reasonable level so that you don’t have to bend or stretch to reach things.

The kitchen:

  • Kitchen advice also includes keeping commonly used items within easy reach. Try to store everything on a mid-reach level to avoid bending or stretching. Sort out your kitchen to have less clutter and implements – and only keep what you really need for day-to-day chores and cooking.
  • However, if you do have things out of reach and need to use a step stool, then ensure it has a hand railing.
  • A kitchen can very often become slippery with water or other spillage. Make sure it is dry and clean before beginning any work – and clean up spills immediately they happen.

Take care – and love your bones! Even when they’re getting old and may let you down, never be the catalyst that lets them down.

NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)

NOFSA is the only nonprofit, voluntary health organisation dedicated to promoting lifelong bone health. We focus on reducing the widespread prevalence of osteoporosis while working to find a cure for the disease, and by supporting research and developing programmes of education and advocacy.

Find out more about our work at: www.osteoporosis.org.za