In 1984, Mersheed Sinaki MD and Beth Mikkelsen, MD published a landmark article based on their research with osteoporotic women. (Yes, it was 1984 but this is one study no one would want to reproduce).1
The study follows 59 women with a diagnosis of postmenopausal spinal osteoporosis and back pain who were divided into 4 groups that included spinal Extension (E), Flexion (F), Combined (E+F), or No Therapeutic Exercises (N). Ages ranged from 49 to 60 years (mean, 56 years). Follow-up ranged from one to six years (mean for the groups, 1.4 to 2 years). All patients had follow-up spine x-rays before treatment and at follow-up, at which time any further wedging and compression fractures were recorded. Additional fractures occurred as follows:
Group E: 16%
Group F: 89%
Group E+F: 53%
Group N: 67%
This study suggests that a significantly higher number of vertebral compression fractures occur in patients with postmenopausal osteoporosis who followed a flexion based exercise program, than those using extension exercises. It also indicated that patients who did no exercises were less likely to sustain a vertebral compression fracture than those doing flexion exercises.
Due to the anatomical nature of the thoracic spine, the vertebral bodies are placed into a normal kyphosis. The anterior portion of the thoracic spine carries an excess load which can predispose an individual to fracture. Combine the propensity of flexion based daily activities such as brushing teeth, driving, texting or typing, with the fact that vertebral bodies are primarily made up of trabecular (spongy) bone and you have a recipe for disaster.
In the US, studies suggest that approximately one in two women and one in four men age 50 and older will break a bone due to osteoporosis.2 Now picture the many individuals who think that the only way to strengthen their core is by doing sit ups or crunches, further compressing the anterior portion of the spine. Often these exercises are being taught or led by fitness instructors who unknowingly put their clients at risk. Only 20-30% of compression fractures are symptomatic.3 This means that individuals may continue performing crunches, sit-ups, or toe touches even after they have fractured. No one realizes it until the person may notice a loss in height (they have trouble reaching a formerly accessible shelf or trouble hanging up clothes,) or the fracture is seen on an x-ray for pneumonia, etc. The Dowager’s Hump (hyper-kyphosis) may begin to appear. Or the person sustains another fragility fracture; possibly a hip.
Note that the E Group (Extension) still sustained fractures but significantly less than the other three groups. This suggests that there is a protective effect in strengthening the back extensors which has led to an emphasis on Site Specific back strengthening exercises as well as correct weight bearing activities.
Telling osteoporosis patients that they should exercise without giving them specific guidelines (such as in the Meeks Method) is doing them a disservice. General exercise provides minimal to no benefit in building stronger bones and the wrong exercises could put them at great risk for fractures. Educating our referral sources for the need to recommend therapists trained in correct osteoporosis management and the difference between “right” and “wrong” exercises may be the first step in reducing fragility fractures.
1. Sinaki M, Mikkelsen BA. Postmenopausal spinal osteoporosis: flexion versus extension exercises. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 1984 Oct; 65.
2. NOF.org. National Osteoporosis Foundation
3. McCarthy J, MD, Davis A, MD, Am Family Physician. Diagnosis and Management of Vertebral Compression Fractures