Whether you are already diagnosed with osteoporosis or you are unaware you are at risk, a fracture may well become a reality – sometimes caused by simple misadventure that in a younger, stronger boned person would not cause a problem.

While suffering a break is traumatic and inconvenient for anybody, it’s usually the repair period afterwards than can cause the most pain and frustration. The word exercise looms large – but there are a number of factors you will have to remember when getting back to normal life. Rehabilitating a fracture, especially if your bones are already compromised by osteoporosis can be a tricky business. So let’s have a look at what you need to do.

Increasing muscular and bone strength

As osteoporosis is often undiagnosed until a fracture occurs, and initial treatment will involve relieving pain and stabilising the fracture. Several types of health professionals can help you recover from a broken bone. An Orthopedic surgeon can help repair your broken bones, firstly through setting and plastering or surgery if necessary, followed by a healing time of 6 – 8 weeks. A rehabilitation treatment programme will include physical therapy to strengthen muscles, improve movement, lower risk of further falls, and increase bone density where possible.

Once you reach the rehabilitation phase, you will probably deal with Physiatrists (doctors who specialize in rehabilitation), Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists. These specialists use a variety of methods to help people with osteoporosis return to full functionality after a broken bone.

Therapy includes:

  • Exercises to keep the joint moving, as well as the application of ice and heat. Such treatments are especially important in relieving the muscle spasms and pain that often come with broken bones of the spine.
  • Resistance exercises are most beneficial for muscle and bone strength, and this entails weight-bearing exercises to help maintain fitness and bone density while also improving balance– the most important factor in preventing falls.
  • In addition, a supervised programme of exercises to strengthen the back can help decrease pain and improve movement. An Occupational Therapist teaches techniques that will help you move safely during your daily activities to reduce pain and prevent future falls.
  • Counselling may also be necessary to assist with the rehabilitation process. Many people suffer a fear of falling or an accident that may repeat the bone-breaking experience and become overly cautious to the point of being unable to participate in normal life. A well-rounded recovery, both physically and mentally is important.
  • A review of all medication that may affect your balance or cause drops in blood pressure is important, as both may increase your risk of falling. Vision and hearing are also best to keep under observation.
  • Supplementation with calcium and vitamin D would be highly recommended to prevent additional loss of bone density, weakening bones and greater risk of fractures.

The bones of the matter

Recovering from a broken wrist

Broken wrists are common in people under age 75. Women suffer more broken wrists around the time of menopause due to the bone loss that can occur during menopause. While a simple broken wrist usually heals with a cast or splint, a more complex break will probably require surgery. Either way, learning to do the right exercises at the right time is vital to regaining strength and movement of your hand, wrist, fingers and arm.

Recovering from broken bones in the spine

Broken bones in the spine are also known as vertebral fractures or compression fractures. You may not need surgery but you initially you will need plenty of rest for the first week or so. Muscle spasms are a common occurrence, but experiences vary. Becoming active as soon as possible is important to get your strength back. In some cases, vertebral fractures may occur without noticeable pain, and people may only learn about these broken bones from back X-rays. You may need to wear a back brace for support when you begin your exercises.

The support may relieve pain by decreasing movement in the affected area of the spine. As your back muscles become stronger, you will use the support less often. It is important not to become too dependent on the spinal support because using it for too long will keep you from improving muscle and bone strength. You may find you have to avoid certain activities that you used to do before, such as picking up your grandchild or carrying shopping.

Recovering from a broken hip

This is probably the most common bone to break for elderly people. Most times you will need surgery to repair it. Some people may develop problems after surgery, and do not fully recover. Others may experience trouble walking again and have to use a wheelchair or walker for a period of time.

Whatever your situation, it is vital to get your rehabilitation exercises going as soon as possible. A Physical or Occupational Therapist can teach you safe ways to move. Recovering from a broken hip can take many months, and in the early weeks of recovery, your activities will be limited. You may need to rely on others for shopping, cooking, cleaning, bathing and even dressing yourself, so remaining focused on your rehabilitation therapy is paramount to regaining your independence.

It’s also good at this point to reiterate that since many broken bones result from tripping, slipping or loss of balance, you may wish to engage in three vital preventative measures: fall-proof your home; participate in balance training; and learn exercises to increase your muscle strength.

NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)

NOFSA is the only non-profit, 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