Body image of people with osteoporosis

‘I was just mentally stuck in the place I’d grown up in, with an osteoporosis mum and aunt who visually just scared me because this was going to be my future.’ (Jane, diagnosed, age 36)

Some people we talked to initially saw osteoporosis as a condition that would lead to height loss and curvature of the spine. Often, they recalled memories of seeing their mothers or grandmothers disabled and their body shape changed by the condition. Fortunately, prompt diagnosis, advances in osteoporosis treatments, weight bearing exercises and a rich calcium diet can all help to preserve and/or build bone mass. Some of the women we talked to found the prospect of losing height or experiencing change in body shape disturbing, particularly women who have seen parents or grandparents severely affected by the condition. Valerie said that she ‘keeps a close eye’ and tries to measure herself regularly. Clare said that losing an inch in height shocked her more than the diagnosis itself. Susan accepts her loss of height but hopes that it won’t get any worse. Chris, who has a curvature at the top of her spine, pointed out that unlike her mother, she was diagnosed at a younger age and is on medication. Indeed, women were reassured by their prompt diagnosis and the fact that they are taking medication.
As discussed in other summaries many of the people we talked to were pro-active and through regular exercise, medication and a rich calcium diet aimed to halt or prevent any possible deterioration of their bone mass and hence body shape. Susannah attended regular Pilates classes and she was surprised when her teacher commented on her good posture (see also Osteoporosis and exercise).
Some of the people we talked to had lost height and/or experienced changes in their appearance following spinal fractures (osteoporotic compression fractures). Several women said that losing height was a gradual unnoticeable event and they only started to become aware of it when they were unable to reach shelves in the cupboards or when their skirts or night dresses became increasingly longer. Victoria Iris said that she was very busy working and had no pain or discomfort. Pat’s consultant told her that she had lost six inches.
Others like Rose had a different experience. Within a space of a few months she fractured a total of five vertebras that left her in excruciating pain, with significant loss of height and a protruding stomach.
Following body changes, finding suitable clothes to wear can become as Rose put it, ‘a nightmare’. Clothes no longer fitted well and the loss of a waist line meant that trousers and skirts needed to have an elasticated waistband rather than a zip. Joan can no longer wear a bra because, ‘Her back is bigger than her front’. Many women said that it is important for them to maintain a smart, feminine and comfortable appearance and in the absence of appropriate garments they resorted to making their own clothes or paid for alterations. Victoria Iris said that clothes alterations are expensive and sometimes it had cost her the same as the new garment.
Joan who has broken her wrists and arms several times said that she prefers to wear garments with long sleeves to cover the scars left by surgery.
Sadness, embarrassment, irritation were all emotions connected with the loss of body shape. Women who belonged to a local support group had found it helpful to discuss this issue and their personal concerns with others facing a similar situation.
Sometimes the comments made by other people made them aware of their changing circumstances. Remarks about their rounded back, a large stomach or loss of height can be upsetting. Dennis, who had lost four inches in height, was concerned about wearing his brace in public places. He didn’t like people asking him about his medical condition.
While they may still feel a bit embarrassed or annoyed by changes in their body appearance, the people we talked to said that they had adjusted to the physical consequences of osteoporosis. Ann and Elizabeth added that their loss of height had become a kind of a ‘joke’ between them and their grand children, who were now towering over them. Ann said that it is a sign of ‘family closeness’.
Numerous and severe compression fractures can cause serious medical problems' shortness of breath, protruding stomach, indigestion problems and stress incontinence because of a reduction in the available space for the internal organs. Robert said that he has developed a protruding stomach and has lost back and abdominal muscle. He said that he can’t breathe using the muscles in the middle of his body without experiencing pain. Joan had severe kyphosis that has limited the amount of space in her chest and has caused pulmonary problems leading to shortness of breath. Victoria Iris said that she is aware of the possible medical problems because she has attended many conferences on osteoporosis and understands that her body is out of alignment and her organs may be affected by it.

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Last reviewed June 2017.


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