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Back pain & the signs of bone thinning

By August 1, 2016Article

In this article

    • Are your bones thinning? The risk factors
    • Get geeky: how bones are formed – and what can go wrong even when you do everything right
    • Can you stop bone thinning?

Back pain is extremely common and often overlooked.

Many of us resign ourselves to it as an inescapable part of aging, like wrinkles and saggy skin, but it could also be a sign of something more serious. Back pain is a common symptom of:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Slipped disc
  • Arthritis
  • Spinal fracture
  • Infection of the spine

Thinning bones often have no symptoms at all! So if you do have back pain, it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Usually sufferers only realise it after a fall – the once-strong bone fractures or breaks, and by then, they’re in way more pain and way further behind in strengthening their bones.

It’s a process that takes months or even years, but the good news is bones take just as long to deteriorate, so starting now will most probably stop it from getting worse. Starting early on bone health is like insurance; in the event of a fall or hitting something really hard, our bones would still be able to hold up, or at least, we might get away with a minor fracture instead of a completely broken bone.

Are your bones thinning? The risk factors

We lose bone and build it up again every day, but sometimes we lose more than we replace and that causes bone thinning. Back pain, a hunched back and height loss are signs that you’re losing more bone than you’re building up. Early stage bone thinning is called osteo-penia and if left untreated, the bone loss may become excessive, resulting in osteoporosis.

Risk factors

  • Not enough estrogen, which helps to preserve calcium (after menopause, women lose an average of 10% of their bone density!)
  • Not enough testosterone (for men only. By about 50 years of age, men and women lose bone at roughly the same rate)
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Not getting enough sunlight, the main source of vitamin D

Dietary risk factors:

  • Malnutrition — Not enough calcium and/or phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, bo-ron, iron, fluoride, copper and vitamins A, K, E and C
  • Eating too much meat – which can cause calcium to be leeched from the bones and passed out in urine

Despite the risk factors, the only thing that can tell you if you have thinning bones for sure is your T-score – which you can get after a bone mineral density test. The higher your score, the higher the amount of minerals (aka calcium) in your bones, thus the stronger and denser they are.

If your T-Score is -1 or lower, it is a sign of osteopenia, or mildly thin bones that are heading towards osteoporosis. Osteopenia can be stopped, and doesn’t always escalate into osteoporosis.

Get geeky: how bones are formed – and what can go wrong even when you do everything right

Imagine this: You drink milk, love cheese, get take plenty of calcium and don’t eat too much red meat. You get out, exercise three times a week and have fun – good clean fun, no ciga-rettes or alcohol. But when you go for your health check, your T-score isn’t so great, and your heart may be in trouble. Why? The answer may be in how our bones are made.
Bone relies on calcium and other trace vitamins and minerals. Bone building is largely a two-step process:

  1. Changing calcium from the food we eat into calcium specifically for bone building (also known as osteocalcin)
  2. Binding the osteocalcin to the existing bones

Vitamin D, which comes from sunlight, is the key to the first part. That’s why not getting enough sun is a risk factor for poor bone health. Without it, the calcium we eat doesn’t turn into calcium for our bones.

The lesser known Vitamin K2 is essential for the second; it guides the osteocalcin right to the bones. Without enough K2, it may end up in places where it doesn’t belong. One of the very worst places it can end up in is the arteries, where it can cause stiffening and impede blood flow to the heart, leading to heart disease.

Therefore, simply upping your calcium intake may cause more harm instead of good. It is cru-cial to consume enough vitamin D and K2. Sunlight is free and easily available, but vitamin K2 is another story.

It’s produced in tiny quantities by our bodies, in places like the saliva glands, pancreas, brain and sternum. Aside from being in short supply, it is quickly depleted – people can become K2 deficient in as short as seven days, but there are no outward signs. It’s up to us to remember to replenish our stores – whether through supplements or the food we eat.

Can you stop bone thinning?

Yes. It can even be reversed! With the right nutrition, exercise and lifestyle, your T-score can be maintained, or actually go up – it’s not just a one-way road!

  • Eat calcium-rich foods: Cheese, milk, yogurt, sardines, dark leafy green vegetables or soybeans. Calcium-fortified juices, cereals or bread are also useful
  • Eat foods rich in vitamin K2: natto (Japanese fermented soy beans)
  • Get plenty of sunlight for vitamin D
  • Do weight-bearing exercises: dancing, aerobics, hiking, walking, running, tennis, stair climbing, weightlifting

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