Getting old is a privilege but being told at almost 60 that you have the bones of a 90-year-old makes accepting the saying “ageing gracefully” hard to swallow.
At 58, Sharon Andrews felt like most people her age – young and full of life – except for some middle back pain. “I’d had a very sore back for about six or so weeks,” she explains. “It wasn’t normal aches and pains, but I was still going to work and doing my usual activities. It was very painful”.
After persevering, Sharon decided to make an appointment to see her GP. Neither Sharon nor her doctor gave osteoporosis a thought, and she was sent away to see if the pain would subside. “Initially, my doctor didn’t think it could be osteoporosis,” she says. “But when I went back a week later, he sent me for a bone density scan to rule it out and to see where my bones were at. The results showed I had quite severe osteoporosis.”
The back pain Sharon was experiencing wasn’t caused by simply getting out of bed the wrong way or reaching for something and pulling a muscle, but an undiagnosed crush fracture in her spine. Research suggests that by 2022, there will be one osteoporotic fracture every 2.9 minutes in Australia. And that’s not even the scariest part: often the doctor will treat the fracture but not think to check for osteoporosis.
“The pain I experienced was quite severe,” Sharon says. “It was hard to breathe and move. I never thought it was a fracture, so I pushed on. It’s what you do. I’m very much of the [generation who believe] you just get on with it. Take a couple of pain-killers and on you go. Had I known how bad my injury was, I would have taken time off work. I would have taken time off to rest and recuperate.”
Sharon’s diagnosis meant she joined many other Australians who only find out they have severe osteoporosis when they’ve had a fall and broken a bone. As a silent disease, there are no symptoms and therefore, a monumental 80 per cent of Australians go undiagnosed and untreated.
“Like my doctor, I really thought I was too young to have osteoporosis. It was always known as an old person’s disease and I certainly wasn’t an old person,” Sharon says. “Oddly, 10 years earlier, my gynaecologist referred me to have a bone density scan but I didn’t go ahead with it, thinking that I was too young. A 48-year-old doesn’t get osteoporosis [I thought].
“Osteoporosis is a silent disease. We need to become more aware of it so that we can diagnose it sooner. If you have family members who have it, I think it’s a good reason to ask your GP for a referral to get a scan so you can address issues sooner.”
Despite her diagnosis, Sharon isn’t letting it stop her from enjoying the good things in life. “Of course, I’m more careful where I walk and I make sure I’m not going to slip over or trip on anything,” she says. “Thankfully, I can wear flat shoes for work. I’m very careful to choose shoes that make walking comfortable and easy. You don’t expect these things at such a young age. I’m mindful of it and take precautions – my husband won’t let me lift anything – but I also don’t let it stop me doing normal things.”
“I am receiving treatment, which is preventing my condition from getting worse, and I do everything as normally and as healthily as possible. I eat pretty healthily and have a very positive outlook on life. I think that is beneficial. I have a wonderful husband, I have beautiful daughters and I just get on with it. I go for regular walks and life is good.”
Osteoporosis, or The Big O, is not an old person’s disease. It can affect anyone after menopause and – while serious – it is treatable. Take charge of your health and wellbeing by reviewing The Big O’s simple checklist below, or completing the At Risk online tool.
Sharon remains optimistic about her future despite her very unexpected diagnosis, and hopes women like her start becoming more aware of their bone health. “The more we can encourage others to have a bone density scan, the better the chances are of detecting osteoporosis early, which means they’ll be able to manage their bone health,” she says.
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.
If you’ve fractured a bone since turning 50, have a family history of fractures and osteoporosis, lost height, or experienced unexplained back pain, you could have osteoporosis. It’s serious but it’s also treatable. Ask your doctor about a bone density scan today. And say no to The Big O.