Scottish nursing experts tackle ‘ageing timebomb’

Nursing students Becca Dunlop and Bethany Seggie try out an 'osteoporosis suit'. Photograph: Jane Barlow
Nursing students Becca Dunlop and Bethany Seggie try out an 'osteoporosis suit'. Photograph: Jane Barlow
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SCOTTISH specialists are pioneering a new approach to treating a ‘silent’ bone disease which can have a catastrophic impact on the lives of elderly people.

A team led by researchers from Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh realised that frontline hospital staff were often failing to spot osteoporosis in older patients, where the bones become brittle and are liable to break.

The condition, which affects more than 250,000 Scots, can cause agonising fractures without any obvious reason as the bone loss has become greater than bone production.

QMU nursing expert Dr Margaret Smith set out to tackle the problem, which has been described as an “ageing timebomb” by health experts as there are more than 1,500 hip fracture deaths per month in the UK.

Smith said: “Osteoporosis tends not to be the reason why people are admitted to hospital and a patient’s condition may not be known by frontline healthcare staff.

“Our funders wanted to highlight the prevalence of osteoporosis in the population, which is not just a factor of ageing but can also be triggered by some cancer treatments, endocrine disorders and renal disease.

“Those with the condition could potentially sustain fractures because of sub-optimal handling in acute care.”

The Lydia Osteoporosis Project, which began in 2011, aims to reduce the potential risk of people with osteoporosis being injured by being moved around in hospital such as for X-rays or from room to room.

As well as causing extreme pain for the patient, these fractures are also expensive to treat and place further strain on the NHS.

Often patients themselves will not know they have the condition, said Smith.

The team has developed a new website and social network for NHS staff to help them to consider whether a patient has osteoporosis when they arrive in hospital.

Smith said: “Between 5 per cent and 7 per cent of hospital falls result in hip fractures, and although it’s a relatively rarely occurrence, the consequences can be catastrophic.

“By increasing awareness of the prevalence of osteoporosis, and the steps frontline care staff should take to minimise the risk of bone fractures, we can hope to go some way to improving the care and comfort of patients.”

Researchers also used a pioneering “osteo suit” to inform their findings which mimics the symptoms of osteoporosis by constricting the wearer’s movement and building up their feet to make walking uneven.

The work has been hailed by campaigners who said people with the condition are often frightened to go into hospital and risk further fractures.

Sarah Leyland, senior nurse and helpline manager at the National Osteoporosis Society (NOS), said: “We often hear from people on the charity’s helpline who are very anxious when they go into hospital, particularly if they have had spinal fractures in the past.

“They are frightened about being moved quickly or carelessly, triggering further pain problems or that they might fall in an unfamiliar environment risking further fractures.

“It’s vital that hospital staff understand osteoporosis and are more aware of people’s concerns and, most importantly, know how to avoid problems occurring.”

The full findings from the Lydia Project will be presented at a conference next month to coincide with the launch of the education website.

CASE STUDY

WHEN Lorna Young noticed a small ache in her back, she thought it was caused by being on her feet all day at her job in a bank in Inverness.

Rest would make the pain go away so Young, then 56, continued to work through it.

But in 1995 doctors discovered that she had severe osteoporosis and had lost a large amount of her bone mass – making her susceptible to fractures.

Young said: “I felt this ache in my back but ignored it for months because I was ignorant of osteoporosis.

“I just took it as being related to my age and working as I did.

“One day I tried to lift a coal scuttle and something happened in my back. It was agony.”

Young had suffered a number of vertebrae fractures, and spent nine months recovering from the breaks as the pain made it difficult for her to sleep as she could not lie down.

Scans eventually showed she had lost a lot of bone density and she underwent a number of different treatments to manage her condition.

Young, now 77, said she believed awareness of osteoporosis has improved hugely since her diagnosis but there was always more that could be done.

She said: “I now find that when I go to hospital for treatment they always give you forms to ask about other conditions.

“It is picked up very quickly and this has improved a lot.”

“They always try very hard to make sure I am comfortable during X-rays,” she added.