Osteoporosis Drugs Probed

Thursday, May 5, 2011 - 7:45am

New study finds small risk of fractures from medications designed to strengthen bones.

There's been some concern that drugs meant to help prevent broken bones might actually increase the risk of major fractures, but new research on the matter may be reassuring to women on the osteoporosis drugs.

Women whose bone scans show they're at risk for osteoporosis are often prescribed drugs called bisphosphonates.

They slow down the turnover of bone, reducing the risk for breaks.

Those medications -- Fosamax, Boniva and others -- come with a warning that they've been linked to what doctors call "atypical fractures", sudden breaks of the femur that have nothing to do with osteoporosis.

It's heightened anxiety among patients on the drugs.

The new research shows that overall risk is small.

Dr. Margaret Gourlay treats women at risk for osteoporosis at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

She says the new study of more than a thousand women shows the benefits of bisphosphonates outweigh any risk.

"Those atypical fractures occurred at a low rate, they're uncommon and overall they probably at this point will not change our prescribing practice for the bisphosphonates," she explains.

She estimates that for every one of these atypical fractures as many as 100 broken hips may be prevented, and a hip fracture can be deadly for the frailest of patients.

"Up to 20% of people can die in the first six months after a hip fracture," she says.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation also applauds the new study, pointing out the usual ways to keep bones strong -- calcium, vitamin d and exercise -- sometimes aren't enough for those most at risk for osteoporosis.

The study was largely limited to white women, so the findings might not apply to men or other ethnic groups.

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