Osteoporosis Clinical Presentation

Updated: Dec 21, 2022
  • Author: Rachel Elizabeth Whitaker Elam, MD, MSc; Chief Editor: Herbert S Diamond, MD  more...
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Keep in mind that osteoporosis occurs in many people who have few or no risk factors for this condition. Often, patients who have not sustained a fracture do not report symptoms that would alert the clinician to suspect a diagnosis of osteoporosis; thus, this disease is a "silent thief" that generally does not become clinically apparent until a fracture occurs.

Screening at-risk populations is, therefore, essential; unfortunately, many women do not receive proper screening or treatment for osteoporosis, which, in turn, may result in improper management of this disease and its related complications. [104] For example, the  presence of a disorder known to cause secondary osteoporosis—such as rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, or Crohn disease—should increase a clinician’s suspicion that the patient may have osteoporosis and that screening may be indicated.

Multiple risk factors exist for osteoporosis. The National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) has categorized these risk factors into two categories: nonmodifiable and modifiable. Nonmodifiable risk factors include the following:

  • Personal history of fracture as an adult
  • History of fracture in a first-degree relative
  • White race
  • Advanced age
  • Female sex
  • Dementia
  • Poor health or fragility

Potentially modifiable risk factors include the following:

  • Current cigarette smoking
  • Low body weight (< 127 lb)
  • Estrogen deficiency such as that caused by early menopause (age < 45 years) or bilateral ovariectomy and prolonged premenopausal amenorrhea (>1 year)
  • Low lifelong calcium intake
  • Alcoholism [74]
  • Impaired eyesight despite adequate correction
  • Recurrent falls
  • Inadequate physical activity
  • Poor health or frailty

Assessment of fracture risk

A thorough history should be obtained to screen for and identify the presence of known risk factors for osteoporosis and osteoporotic fracture. Specifically, the history should focus on the following [105, 106] :

  • Age (> 50 years), sex (female), and race (white or Asian) [105] ; the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommendations include screening for osteoporosis in women aged 65 years or older and in younger women with a fracture risk that is the same or greater than that of a 65-year-old white woman who has no additional risk factors [106]

  • Family history of osteoporosis, particularly maternal history of fractures

  • Reproductive factors, especially regarding early menopause and estrogen replacement therapy: postmenopausal women are at high risk, as are women who have undergone hysterectomy and oophorectomy

  • Hypogonadal states: men with hypogonadism secondary to any genetic or other conditions are at higher risk [105] ; the USPSTF notes that there is insufficient current evidence to assess the risk versus benefit of screening for osteoporosis in men [106]

  • Smoking: smokers are at higher risk

  • Alcohol consumption

  • Low levels of physical activity: immobility increases the risk [65] ; spinal cord injury and stroke cause physical impairment and are common causes of immobility

  • Strenuous exercise that results in amenorrhea (such as that which occurs in marathon runners)

  • Calcium and vitamin D intake

  • History of low-trauma "fragility" fracture in patients aged 40 years or older: a fragility fracture is defined as a fracture due to trauma that would not normally cause fracture (a force equal to or less than that resulting from a fall from standing height)

  • Signs of vertebral fracture (see below)

  • Coexisting medical conditions associated with bone loss: examples are hyperparathyroidism, hypogonadism, leukemia, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, and Cushing syndrome [107]

  • Medications associated with bone loss: examples are glucocorticoids, cyclosporine, anticonvulsants, heparin, lithium, and tacrolimus [107]

  • Risk factors for falls in older patients: these include poor balance, orthostatic hypotension, weakness of the lower extremity muscles and deconditioning, use of medications with sedative effects, poor vision or hearing, and cognitive impairment

FRAX tool

The USPSTF did not find any studies that assessed whether patient outcomes are affected by the use of risk prediction instruments, either alone or in combination with bone measurement tests. Nevertheless, there are many validated instruments for predicting the risk for low bone mineral density (BMD) in postmenopausal women; few of these, however, have been validated for use in men. [106]

The Fracture Risk Assessment (FRAX) tool, accessible to healthcare providers and patients, is a validated instrument used to estimate 10-year risks for fractures, including those for black, Asian, and Hispanic women. [94] A 65-year-old white woman with no other risk factors has a 9.3% 10-year risk for any osteoporotic fracture. Generally, estimated fracture risks in nonwhite women are lower than those for white women of the same age.

Examples of white women aged 50 to 64 years with ≥10-year fracture risks, based on specific risk factors, include the following [106] :

  • A 50-year-old current smoker with a body mass index (BMI) less than 21 kg/m 2, daily alcohol use, and parental fracture history
  • A 55-year-old woman with a parental fracture history
  • A 60-year-old woman with a BMI less than 21 kg/m 2 and daily alcohol use
  • A 60-year-old current smoker with daily alcohol use

Differentiating fracture types by history

Patients with acute insufficiency fractures may report a history of minimal or no trauma resulting in pain. They may report a fall from a standing or sitting position. Patients with compression fractures resulting in thoracic kyphosis may report iliocostal friction with associated abdominal protrusion, decreased tolerance for oral intake, and breathing difficulties. Patients with hip, pelvic, or sacral fractures may report pain that is worsened with weight-bearing.

Patients who have sustained a vertebral compression fracture may note progressive kyphosis with loss of height. They may also present with an episode of acute back pain after bending, lifting, or coughing. It should be noted, however, that two thirds of vertebral fractures are asymptomatic.

With respect to those vertebral fractures that are painful, typical subjective information may include the following:

  • The episode of acute pain may follow a fall or minor trauma.
  • Pain is localized to a specific, identifiable, vertebral level in the midthoracic to lower thoracic or upper lumbar spine.
  • The pain is described variably as sharp, nagging, or dull; movement may exacerbate pain; in some cases, pain radiates to the abdomen.
  • Pain is often accompanied by paravertebral muscle spasms exacerbated by activity and decreased by lying supine.
  • Patients often remain motionless in bed because they are afraid of exacerbating the pain.
  • Acute pain usually resolves after 4-6 weeks; in the setting of multiple fractures with severe kyphosis, the pain may become chronic.

Patients who have sustained a hip fracture may experience the following:

  • Pain in the groin, posterior buttock, anterior thigh, medial thigh, and/or medial knee during weight-bearing or attempted weight-bearing of the involved extremity
  • Diminished hip range of motion (ROM), particularly internal rotation and flexion
  • External rotation of the involved hip while in the resting position

Patients with osteoporosis may report lactose intolerance or celiac sprue. Celiac sprue has been shown to be associated with osteoporosis in approximately 5% of cases.


Physical Examination

Patients with suspected osteoporosis should undergo a comprehensive physical examination. The physical examination should begin with an inspection of the patient. Height measurement with a stadiometer at each visit may be useful. Examination of active and passive range of motion (ROM) assists in determining whether spine, hip, wrist, or other osseous pathology may be present. A thorough neurologic examination is essential to rule out spinal cord and/or peripheral nerve compromise.

The examination may elicit pain, or the patient may be pain free. Thoracic kyphosis may be present secondary to vertebral compression fractures, a dowager hump, and a history of loss of height. Patients may have an associated scoliosis.

Areas of concern include the following:

  • A history of loss of height
  • Low body weight (body mass index < 19 kg/m 2)
  • Signs that might indicate existing osteoporosis (eg, kyphosis or dowager hump; point tenderness over a vertebra or other suspected fracture site)
  • Signs suggestive of secondary osteoporosis
  • Signs in older patients that may indicate increased fall risk (eg, difficulty with balance or gait, orthostatic hypotension, lower-extremity weakness, poor vision or hearing, cognitive impairment)

A 10-year longitudinal study assessed the Timed Up and Go (TUG) test performance (a validated predictor of falling) and hip area BMD (bone mineral density calculated using bone area as opposed to bone volume). Using data from 1126 women (mean age, 75 years), the study noted that risks of nonvertebral fracture and hip fracture were significantly higher in those who had slow TUG test performance and normal hip BMD or both slow TUG test performance and low hip BMD. These results suggest that the TUG test is an independent risk factor for incident nonvertebral fracture; this inexpensive physical assessment may be beneficial in screening patients at increased risk of fracture. [108]

Signs of fracture

Patients with vertebral compression fractures may demonstrate a thoracic kyphosis with an exaggerated cervical lordosis (dowager hump). This is followed by a loss of lumbar lordosis. After each episode of vertebral compression fracture and progressive kyphosis, the patient's height may decrease by 2-3 cm.

Patients with acute vertebral fractures may have point tenderness over the involved vertebrae. Palpation of the spinous processes often does not aid the examiner in localizing point tenderness, but percussion may be helpful in acute or subacute vertebral compression fractures.

Patients with hip fractures may have severe pain with ambulation. A FABER (flexion in abduction and external rotation) hip joint test may reveal limited ROM with end-range pain. Patients with hip fractures may show decreased weight-bearing on the fractured side or an antalgic gait pattern.

Patients with pubic and sacral fractures may report marked pain with ambulation and tenderness to palpation, percussion, or both. Furthermore, patients with sacral fractures may have pain with physical examination techniques used to assess the sacroiliac joint, such as the FABER, Gaenslen, or squish test.

Fractures in other parts of the body, including the distal radius and humerus, are typically painful and result in limited range of motion of the involved joint.

Signs of collagen defects

Patients with osteoporosis may have physical findings consistent with subtle collagen defects. These include a short fifth digit, dentinogenesis imperfecta, hyperlaxity, hearing loss, pes planus, bunions, and blue sclerae.

Balance difficulties

Patients with osteoporosis are known to have decreased balance, possibly secondary to differences in balance control strategies and sway amplitude. Patients may have difficulty performing tandem gait and performing single limb stance. Poor balance may be noted particularly in patients with severe kyphosis resulting from vertebral compression fractures because their altered center of gravity makes ambulation with a stable base of support difficult for them. [3]

Fractures are the most common and serious complication of osteoporosis. Patients with osteoporosis are at high risk for recurrent fractures of the hips, vertebrae, ribs, and wrists.


Screening in Men

Although routinely screening men for osteoporosis is not as widespread a practice as that of screening in women, the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) indicates that using bone measurement tests in men may not only help to detect this disease but also prevent its associated burden of fractures and fracture-related illness. [109]  Approximately 30% of all hip fractures occur in men and the mortality is higher in men than in women. 

In weighing the risk versus benefit of screening men, clinicians should consider that osteoporosis is a preventable condition and that the potential harm in screening is likely to be small and mostly due to cost, such as that required to increase the number of dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scanners available for screening. [109] In addition, assuming that the risk versus benefit of therapy for osteoporosis is similar for men and women, the men who are most likely to benefit from screening would be those with a 10-year risk for osteoporotic fracture that is equal to or greater than that for 65-year-old white women who have no additional risk factors. [109] It is important to note, however, that there is insufficient current evidence for assessing the risk versus benefit of screening for osteoporosis in men.

The American College of Physicians (ACP) has similar recommendations for screening of osteoporosis in men, including periodic evaluation of risk factors in older men before age 65 years (particularly men who do not choose to be screened) and obtaining DXA for men at increased risk for the disease who are candidates for drug therapy. [110] Risk factors for osteoporosis in men include the following [110] :

  • Age older than 70 years
  • Low body weight (body mass index [BMI] < 20 to 25 kg/m 2)
  • Greater than 10% weight loss (relative to the usual young or adult weight or weight loss in recent years)
  • Physical inactivity
  • Corticosteroid use
  • Androgen deprivation therapy
  • Previous fragility fracture

Like the USPSTF, the ACP recommends further research to assess osteoporosis screening tests in men, to determine whether risk factors for osteoporosis in women also apply to men. [110]

Osteoporosis in men should be treated. However, there has been less drug study for osteoporosis in men compared with that of women. [111] Only zoledronic acid has been studied and has shown a risk reduction of new fractures. In a study of 1199 men with osteoporosis, treatment with zoledronic acid resulted in a 67% reduction in the risk of new vertebral fractures. [111]  Other medications use in the treatment of osteoporosis in men include risedronate, strontium ranelate, teriparatide, and denosumab. [111]



Vertebral fractures from osteoporosis may lead to prolonged immobilization and medication use, which carry a range of complications. [112]

Complications of prolonged immobilization include the following:

  • Deep venous thrombosis/pulmonary embolism
  • Infections
  • Pressure sores
  • Decreased muscle strength, 10-15% per week
  • Decreased bone mass
  • Cardiac effects - postural hypotension, decreased cardiac function
  • Gastrointestinal effects - constipation, fecal impaction
  • Neurosensory side effects - restlessness, anxiety, depression, fear, rapid mood changes, insomnia, hostility, pain intolerance, impaired intellectual and perceptual functioning

Complications of the medications used to relieve symptoms of vertebral fractures include the following:

  • Narcotics - constipation, somnolence, dependence
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) - peptic ulcer disease, cardiovascular effects, kidney and liver effects, aspirin-exacerbated respiratory effects
  • Muscle relaxants - somnolence, dizziness, anticholinergic effects, weakness