Osteoporosis treatment: Medications can help
Medically reviewed on Jul 29, 2017
If you're undergoing osteoporosis treatment, you're taking a step in the right direction for your bone health. But perhaps you have questions about your therapy. Is the medication you're taking the best one for you? How long will you have to take it? Why does your doctor recommend a weekly pill when your friend takes a pill only once a month?
Which medications are commonly used for osteoporosis treatment?
Bisphosphonates are the most common medications prescribed for osteoporosis treatment. These include:
- Alendronate (Fosamax)
- Risedronate (Actonel)
- Ibandronate (Boniva)
- Zoledronic acid (Reclast)
Hormones, such as estrogen, can play a role in osteoporosis prevention and treatment. However, there has been some concern about potential side effects tied to the use of hormone therapy. Current recommendations say to use the lowest dose of hormones for the shortest period of time.
Still, women who have reasons — such as menopausal symptoms — to consider using hormones can weigh the benefit of improved bone health into their decision.
Some hormonelike medications also are approved for preventing and treating osteoporosis, such as raloxifene (Evista).
Denosumab (Prolia, Xgeva) is a newer medication shown to reduce the risk of osteoporotic fracture in women and men. Unrelated to bisphosphonates, denosumab might be used in people who can't take a bisphosphonate, such as some people with reduced kidney function.
Teriparatide (Forteo) is typically reserved for men and postmenopausal women who have very low bone density, who have had fractures or whose osteoporosis is caused by steroid medication. Teriparatide has the potential to rebuild bone.
Abaloparatide (Tymlos) is the newest osteoporosis medication. Like teriparatide, it has the potential to rebuild bone. In a research trial comparing these two treatments, abaloparatide appeared to be as effective as teriparatide but was less likely to cause an excess of calcium.
How do most osteoporosis medications work?
With the exception of teriparatide, osteoporosis medications slow bone breakdown. Healthy bones continuously break down and rebuild.
As you age — especially after menopause — bones break down faster. Because bone rebuilding cannot keep pace, bones deteriorate and become weaker.
Osteoporosis medications basically put a brake on the process. These drugs effectively maintain bone density and decrease the risk of breaking a bone as a result of osteoporosis.
How do you know if you're taking the right bisphosphonate?
Drugs in the bisphosphonate class are more alike than they are different. They all help maintain bone density. And, all bisphosphonates have been shown to reduce the chance of a fracture.
The decision to take one drug over another often is based on:
- Adherence to the dosing schedule
- Cost, including whether or not the drug is a "preferred" option on your insurance company's list of acceptable medications (formulary)
Your doctor might recommend a monthly dose of medication if it's going to be better tolerated or better accepted. But if you're likely to forget to take your medicine on a monthly schedule, you might do better taking medication once a week.
When might other osteoporosis medications be used?
Drugs such as denosumab, teriparatide and abaloparatide can be used by anyone with osteoporosis, but are more likely to be recommended for people with unique circumstances, including severe osteoporosis with very low bone density, multiple fractures, steroid use and young age.
These drugs, which are injected, might also be given to people who can't tolerate an oral bisphosphonate. Intravenous (IV) forms of zoledronic acid and ibandronate also can be an option for people who can't tolerate an oral bisphosphonate.
What are common side effects of bisphosphonate pills?
Bisphosphonate pills aren't absorbed well in the stomach. The main side effects of bisphosphonate pills are stomach upset and heartburn. Generic forms of these drugs may be more likely to cause these side effects.
To ease these potential side effects, take the medication with a tall glass of water on an empty stomach. Don't lie down or bend over or eat for 30 to 60 minutes to avoid the medicine washing back up into the esophagus. When the recommended wait time is over, eat to neutralize the remaining medication.
Most people who follow these tips don't have these side effects. But it's possible to take the medicine correctly and still have stomach upset or heartburn.
Do intravenous bisphosphonates have advantages over the pill form?
Infused forms of bisphosphonates don't cause stomach upset. And it may be easier for some women to schedule a quarterly or yearly infusion than to remember to take a weekly or monthly pill.
But, these drugs can cause mild flu-like symptoms in some people. You can lessen the effect by taking acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) before and after the infusion.
Two infusion medications — those that are injected directly into your vein — have been approved for osteoporosis treatment:
- Ibandronate (Boniva), infused once every three months
- Zoledronic acid (Reclast), infused once a year
Can bisphosphonates hurt your bones?
Long-term bisphosphonate therapy has been linked to a rare problem in which the upper thighbone cracks and may break. This injury, known as atypical femoral fracture, can cause pain in the thigh or groin that begins subtly and may gradually worsen.
Bisphosphonates can also cause osteonecrosis of the jaw, a rare condition in which a section of jawbone is slow to heal or fails to heal, typically after a tooth is pulled. This occurs more commonly in people with cancer that involves the bone — who take much larger doses of a bisphonate than typically are used for osteoporosis.
How long should you take a bisphosphonate for osteoporosis treatment?
There's some uncertainty about how long to take bisphosphonates because of a lack of long-term studies. Bisphosphonates have been shown to be safe and effective for up to 10 years of treatment, depending on the medication.
However, even if you stop taking the medication, its positive effects can persist. That's because after taking a bisphosphonate for a period of time, the medicine remains in your bone.
Because of this lingering effect, most experts believe it's reasonable for people who are doing well during treatment — those who have not broken any bones and are maintaining bone density — to consider taking a holiday from their bisphosphonate after taking it for five years. But if you're at very high risk of fractures or you have very low hipbone density, taking a break from your osteoporosis medication may not be a good idea.
What happens if you break a bone while taking an osteoporosis medication?
Osteoporosis medications lower the chance of fracture, but they don't eliminate all risk of breaking a bone. If you have a fracture while on treatment, your doctor will reassess you to check for other problems that may have contributed to the broken bone.
Depending on the outcome of that assessment, you may be a candidate to switch to a more aggressive bone-building therapy such as teriparatide. Another option might be to switch to a newer type of osteoporosis drug called denosumab.
Can medication alone successfully treat osteoporosis?
Don't rely entirely on medication as the only treatment for your osteoporosis. These practices also are important:
- Exercise. Weight-bearing physical activity and exercises that improve balance and posture can strengthen bones and reduce the chance of a fracture. The more active and fit you are as you age, the less likely you are to fall and break a bone.
- Good nutrition. Eat a healthy diet and make certain that you're getting enough calcium and vitamin D.
- Quit smoking. Smoking cigarettes speeds up bone loss.
- Limit alcohol. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy women, that means up to one drink a day.