Treating osteoporosis: A fracture may be a wake-up call

For some people, having a heart attack can be life changing, spurring them on to healthier life choices, like regularly exercising, starting a heart-healthy diet and taking medication.

A bone fracture is not unlike a heart attack — they are both a sign that something is wrong. In the case of a fracture, it could mean you have osteoporosis or a weaker form of bone loss called osteopenia.

Bones shouldn’t break with low-energy falls such as from standing height or less. When they do, your doctor may want to run blood and bone density tests to determine if you have osteoporosis. If diagnosed, you should learn about weight-bearing exercise, fall prevention and nutrition for healthy bones. In addition, you may be a candidate for an osteoporosis medication.

There are several medications available to treat osteoporosis:

Bisphosphonates make up the largest class of drugs. This includes Fosamax (Alendronate), Actonel (Risendronate), Boniva (Ibandronic acid), and Atelvia, which are pill form, and Zometa and Reclast (Zoledronic acid), which are once-yearly injections. These drugs have been studied in large clinical trials for up to 10 years, and complications are rare. We typically recommend patients cycle on and off bisphosphonates in three- to five-year cycles. You can take a “drug holiday” with careful follow up and strict attention to weight-bearing exercise and good calcium and vitamin D intake.

Prolia (Denosumab) is a newer treatment option administered through a shot every six months. It is very effective in protecting bone mass and is well tolerated by patients. There is a slight risk for patients who are prone to infection or who are on immunosuppressive therapy, since it is an antibody therapy. It acts on the same cells as bisphosphonates, so it could have similar risks.

Hormone replacement therapy for women after menopause may help protect bones. Evista (Raloxifene), a pill taken daily, affects the estrogen receptors on breast and bone tissue and helps protect against both breast cancer and osteoporosis.

Forteo (Teriparatide) is the only medicine currently available that builds bone. It is an injection self-administered daily. It is limited to two years of use. Once the two years of therapy are complete, you switch to one of the other medicines to maintain the gains you made with Forteo.

Most of the medications reduce the risk of having a new fracture by about 50 percent. If you’ve had a fracture from a low-energy injury and you have osteopenia, you’re also a candidate for one of these medications.

Osteoporosis is one of the most undertreated diseases of modern times, despite the abundance of good treatments. Fractures from osteoporosis lessen your quality of life with each new fracture.

We must treat fractures as a life-altering event triggering treatment of osteoporosis, just like a heart attack triggers treatment of cardiac disease.

Christina Morganti, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon at Anne Arundel Medical Center. She has opened a dedicated osteoporosis program at her practice, AAMC Orthopedics. To reach her office, call 410-268-8862.
Originally published Sept. 25, 2015. Last updated Oct. 12, 2018.

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