The human skeleton is the foundation on which our bodies are built. Without strong, healthy bones, it would be impossible to walk, let alone run, play sports, or dance. For many of us, bone health is something that we take for granted. However, that is not the case for everyone. Osteoporosis can rob you of your bone health and your ability to live a full, independent life without fear.
What Is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis literally means porous bones. It is a condition in which your bone tissue begins to break down, leaving your bones weak and fragile. According to the Arthritis Foundation,
“In people with osteoporosis, bone tissue breaks down faster than it is replaced. The bones become thinner and brittle (lose mass) and are more likely to break (fracture) with pressure or after a fall”.
“Osteoporosis, or porous bone, is a disease characterized by low bone mass and structural deterioration of bone tissue, leading to bone fragility and an increased risk of fractures of the hip, spine, and wrist. Men as well as women are affected by osteoporosis, a disease that can be prevented and treated. In the United States, more than 53 million people either already have osteoporosis or at high risk due to low bone mass”.
Many people are unaware they have osteoporosis until they are involved in a slip and fall accident or some other type of accident and break a bone that should not have broken. This lack of signs is one reason that the condition is called a “silent disease”.
What Are the Symptoms of Osteoporosis?
There are no symptoms of bone loss during the early stages of osteoporosis. Early stage is called osteopenia. The only way to identify it early on is through medical testing. However, as the disease progresses, there are symptoms that begin to appear. Note that once symptoms appear, the bones are already weak and fragile.
Signs of advanced osteoporosis can include:
- A stooped posture
- Easily broken bones
- Back pain caused by damaged vertebra
- Loss of height
Who Is at Risk for Osteoporosis?
While both men and women suffer from osteoporosis, it is more common for women to suffer from it. This is particularly true for women who go through menopause early. The earlier menopause strikes, the more likely a woman is to develop osteoporosis and the more likely that development will be relatively early in life. Other risk factors include thyroid problems, glandular problems, small body frames, a family history of the condition, and race (with those of Caucasian and Asian descent being the most at-risk). Dietary factors also play a significant role, as do the use of specific types of medications, the presence of other medical conditions, and lifestyle choices, such as not getting enough exercise. Lack of Vitamin D and impaired calcium metabolism put people at a higher risk.
Osteoporosis is dangerous in itself, but it can lead to a number of other complications. Individuals with the condition will find that bone fractures are much slower to heal, and some patients are susceptible to spinal fractures without ever having fallen.
What Are the Treatment Options for Osteoporosis?
There is no cure for osteoporosis, but maintenance steps are available. Nutrition is one of the most important steps. The Western diet is noted for being poor in terms of nutritional content, and individuals with osteoporosis will need to follow a specific diet to ensure balanced nutrition, particularly calcium and vitamin D.
Exercise is another important treatment method. Exercise improves bone health, as well as muscle strength and coordination. It also improves balance, making it less likely that an individual will fall, but making them better able to absorb an impact if they do fall. There are also therapeutic medications available, such as estrogen in hormone replacement therapy, as well as parathyroid hormone analog and other options.
What Role Does Stem Cell Therapy Play in Treating Osteoporosis?
Stem cells show promise for treating a very wide range of diseases, including osteoporosis. These progenitor cells are the building blocks of the body, and are central to our ability to heal damage. A number of studies have been undertaken to evaluate the ability of stem cells to help heal bone damage caused by osteoporosis, as well as fractures caused by falls and other accidents.
A study published in the journal Cellular & Molecular Biology Letters details many of the efforts surrounding mesenchymal stem cells in treating osteoporosis. California’s Stem Cell Agency awarded a grant to a multi-year study of bone fracture treatments with human mesenchymal stem cells.
In most cases, an infusion of human stem cells helps speed the healing of bone fractures. However, there is hope that using stem cells may offset bone loss itself by improving the body’s own ability to regenerate bone tissue.
Stem Cell Types – Allogeneic versus Autologous
Two types of stem cells are used in these studies – autologous and allogeneic. While both are technically stem cells, they are actually quite different. Autologous stem cells are sourced from a patient’s own body. As such, they are as old as the patient, and they also carry significant damage accumulated over the years. This makes them not only low-performing cells but also more likely to cause an immune system reaction.
In comparison, allogeneic stem cells are sourced from banked umbilical cord blood and tissue. Because they are so young, these cells are highly energetic and capable of providing healing and regeneration for many years to come. They also have no damage, making them essentially invisible to the immune system.
In the future, there is a significant chance that stem cell therapy will help patients with osteoporosis heal faster, or even help them improve bone density and avoid fractures in the first place. More study is needed, though. Additionally, note that the FDA has not approved any stem cell therapy, and any such treatment is experimental only.