Your bone density can be measured by a machine that uses low levels of X-rays to determine the proportion of mineral in your bones. During this painless test, you lie on a padded table as a scanner passes over your body. In most cases, only certain bones are checked — usually in the hip and spine.
Treatment recommendations are often based on an estimate of your risk of breaking a bone in the next 10 years using information such as the bone density test. If your risk isn't high, treatment might not include medication and might focus instead on modifying risk factors for bone loss and falls.
For both men and women at increased risk of broken bones, the most widely prescribed osteoporosis medications are bisphosphonates. Examples include:
- Alendronate (Binosto, Fosamax).
- Risedronate (Actonel, Atelvia).
- Zoledronic acid (Reclast, Zometa).
Side effects include nausea, abdominal pain and heartburn-like symptoms. These are less likely to occur if the medicine is taken properly. Intravenous forms of bisphosphonates don't cause stomach upset but can cause fever, headache and muscle aches.
A very rare complication of bisphosphonates is a break or crack in the middle of the thighbone. A second rare complication is delayed healing of the jawbone, called osteonecrosis of the jaw. This can occur after an invasive dental procedure, such as removing a tooth.
Compared with bisphosphonates, denosumab (Prolia, Xgeva) produces similar or better bone density results and reduces the chance of all types of breaks. Denosumab is delivered via a shot under the skin every six months.
Similar to bisphosphonates, denosumab has the same rare complication of causing breaks or cracks in the middle of the thighbone and osteonecrosis of the jaw. If you take denosumab, you might need to continue to do so indefinitely. Recent research indicates there could be a high risk of spinal column fractures after stopping the drug.
Estrogen, especially when started soon after menopause, can help maintain bone density. However, estrogen therapy can increase the risk of breast cancer and blood clots, which can cause strokes. Therefore, estrogen is typically used for bone health in younger women or in women whose menopausal symptoms also require treatment.
Raloxifene (Evista) mimics estrogen's beneficial effects on bone density in postmenopausal women, without some of the risks associated with estrogen. Taking this drug can reduce the risk of some types of breast cancer. Hot flashes are a possible side effect. Raloxifene also may increase your risk of blood clots.
In men, osteoporosis might be linked with a gradual age-related decline in testosterone levels. Testosterone replacement therapy can help improve symptoms of low testosterone, but osteoporosis medications have been better studied in men to treat osteoporosis and thus are recommended alone or in addition to testosterone.
If you have severe osteoporosis or if the more common treatments for osteoporosis don't work well enough, your doctor might suggest trying:
- Teriparatide (Bonsity, Forteo). This powerful drug is similar to parathyroid hormone and stimulates new bone growth. It's given by daily injection under the skin for up to two years.
- Abaloparatide (Tymlos) is another drug similar to parathyroid hormone. This drug can be taken for only two years.
- Romosozumab (Evenity). This is the newest bone-building medicine to treat osteoporosis. It is given as an injection every month at your doctor's office and is limited to one year of treatment.
After you stop taking any of these bone-building medications, you generally will need to take another osteoporosis drug to maintain the new bone growth.
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Lifestyle and home remedies
These suggestions might help reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis or breaking bones:
- Don't smoke. Smoking increases rates of bone loss and the chance of fracture.
- Limit alcohol. Consuming more than two alcoholic drinks a day may decrease bone formation. Being under the influence of alcohol also can increase your risk of falling.
- Prevent falls. Wear low-heeled shoes with nonslip soles and check your house for electrical cords, area rugs and slippery surfaces that might cause you to fall. Keep rooms brightly lit, install grab bars just inside and outside your shower door, and make sure you can get into and out of your bed easily.
Preparing for your appointment
Your health care team might suggest bone density testing. Screening for osteoporosis is recommended for all women over age 65. Some guidelines also recommend screening men by age 70, especially if they have health issues likely to cause osteoporosis. If you have a broken bone after a minor force injury, such as a simple fall, bone density testing may be important to assess your risk of more breaks.
If the test results show very low bone density or you have other complex health issues, you might be referred to a provider who specializes in metabolic disorders, called an endocrinologist, or a provider who specializes in diseases of the joints, muscles or bones, called a rheumatologist.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
What you can do
- Write down symptoms you've noticed, though it's possible you may not have any.
- Write down key personal information, including major stresses or recent life changes.
- Make a list of all medicines, vitamins and supplements that you take or have taken, including doses. It's especially helpful if you record the type and dose of calcium and vitamin D supplements, because many different preparations are available. If you're not sure what information your doctor might need, take the bottles with you or take a picture of the label with your smartphone and share it with your doctor.
- Write down questions to ask your health care provider.
For osteoporosis, basic questions to ask your provider include:
- Do I need to be screened for osteoporosis?
- What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
- What side effects might I expect from treatment?
- Are there alternatives to the treatment you're suggesting?
- I have other health problems. How can I best manage them together?
- Do I need to restrict my activities?
- Do I need to change my diet?
- Do I need to take supplements?
- Is there a physical therapy program that would benefit me?
- What can I do to prevent falls?
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
What to expect from your doctor
Your provider is likely to ask you questions, such as:
- Have you broken bones?
- Have you gotten shorter?
- How is your diet, especially your dairy intake? Do you think you get enough calcium? Vitamin D?
- How often do you exercise? What type of exercise do you do?
- How is your balance? Have you fallen?
- Do you have a family history of osteoporosis?
- Has a parent broken a hip?
- Have you ever had stomach or intestinal surgery?
- Have you taken corticosteroid medicines, including prednisone, cortisone, as pills, injections or creams?
Sept. 07, 2023