Pinky Ronen, M.D.
Osteoporosis is a disease that makes your bones weak. People with the disease can break their bones too easily. For instance, people with osteoporosis sometimes break a bone after falling down at home.
Breaking a bone can be serious, especially if the bone is in the hip. People who break a hip sometimes lose the ability to walk on their own. Many of them end up in a nursing home. That’s why it is so important to avoid breaking a bone in the first place.
Osteoporosis does not cause symptoms until you break a bone. But your doctor or nurse can have you tested for it. The best test is a bone density test called the “DXA test.” It is a special kind of X-ray.
Experts recommend bone density testing for women older than 65. That is because women in this age group have the highest risk of osteoporosis. Still, other people should sometimes be tested, too. Ask your doctor or nurse if you should be tested.
Some people learn that they have osteoporosis because they break a bone during a fall or a mild impact. This is called a “fragility fracture,” because people with healthy bones should not break a bone that easily. People who have fragility fractures are at high risk of having other bones break.
Do your best to keep from falling, too — It sounds simple, but you can prevent a lot of fractures by reducing the chances of a fall. To do that:
Yes, there are a few medicines to treat osteoporosis. These medicines can reduce the chances that you will break a bone.
Doctors and nurses usually suggest trying medicines called bisphosphonates first. If those medicines do not do enough or if they cause side effects that you cannot stand, there are other medicines to try.
If you have osteoporosis or a high risk of breaking a bone, the medicines your doctor prescribes can:
For the medicines to work, you must also take calcium and vitamin D supplements. Your doctor or nurse will tell you how much medicine to take and how often to take it.
There are many different osteoporosis medicines. Your doctor will work with you to choose the best one.
The list below gives basic information on osteoporosis medicines. For more detailed information about your medicines, ask your doctor or nurse.
Most people being treated for osteoporosis take these medicines first. If they do not work well enough or cause side effects that are too hard to handle, there are other options.
Bisphosphonates come in pill or a shot. Most people take 1 pill every week. If your doctor prescribes a bisphosphonate pill, you must take the medicine exactly as directed. If you don’t, the medicine can irritate your throat or stomach. For most bisphosphonate pills, you must:
Take the pill first thing in the morning, before you have anything to eat or drink
Drink an 8-ounce glass of water with the pill, but not eat or drink anything else for 30 minutes or 1 hour (depending on which pill you take).
Avoid lying down for 30 minutes after taking the pill. (You must sit or stand during that time).
There is one bisphosphonate pill, delayed release risedronate (brand name: Atelvia™) that is taken in a different way from the others. It is taken after breakfast with 4 ounces of water.
Medicines called selective estrogen receptor modifiers (or “SERMs”) act like the hormone “estrogen.” Estrogen helps prevent bone loss. After menopause, a woman’s body has less estrogen. (Menopause is the time when a woman stops having periods.) SERMs can act like estrogen to stop bone loss. They also reduce the risk of breast cancer in women at high risk. SERMs are only for women who have gone through menopause.
These medicines are sometimes called “hormone replacement therapy” or “HRT.” After menopause, a woman’s body makes fewer hormones. Some women take HRT to replace these hormones. HRT can also protect against osteoporosis.
Hormones are not used often to treat osteoporosis in women who have gone through menopause. This is because other medicines usually work much better. But HRT can help women who cannot take other osteoporosis medicines.
Women who have not gone through menopause might take hormones in birth control pills or a patch to prevent osteoporosis.
Some men get osteoporosis because their bodies do not make enough of a hormone called “testosterone.” If this happens, doctors can give testosterone to treat the osteoporosis.
Parathyroid hormone (PTH)
Parathyroid hormone is an artificial form of a hormone the body makes naturally. Getting an extra dose of PTH can tell the body to make new bone. It works very well, but is expensive. PTH is usually only for people who have severe osteoporosis.
Calcitonin is a hormone the body makes naturally. Doctors can give a man-made form to treat osteoporosis. It is not used as often as other medicines because it does not work as well. But it can help relieve pain from broken bones in the spine.
Denosumab is a new medicine for osteoporosis. If other osteoporosis medicines cause bad side effects or do not help, your doctor might give you denosumab. It might also be a good choice for people with kidney problems. Because denosumab is newer than other osteoporosis medicines, doctors do not know exactly how safe it is to use for many years. So they do not prescribe it as often as other osteoporosis medicines.
Most people can safely take osteoporosis medicines for many years. If you are not at high risk for breaking a bone, you might be able to stop your medicine for a year or more. Your doctor will check your bone density to make sure you are not losing too much bone. If you do stop the medicine, you will probably need to start it again later.
Some people have heard that taking bisphosphonates for a long time can increase the risk of breaking certain bones. This is true, but it happens very rarely. Your chances of breaking a bone from osteoporosis are much higher than your chances of breaking one because you take bisphosphonates.
If you take osteoporosis medicines, your doctor will do regular exams and tests to see how well the medicines are working. If they are not working well, you might need a different medicine.
Calcium and vitamin D are important for bone health, because they can:
People who do not have healthy bones can have a condition called “osteoporosis.” Osteoporosis can cause bones to:
Doctors can use different treatments for osteoporosis, including medicines. But it’s also important to eat and drink foods that have calcium and vitamin D. Eating enough calcium and vitamin D is an important first step in preventing and treating osteoporosis.
Different foods and drinks have calcium and vitamin D. Some foods and drinks have more calcium and vitamin D than others.
Foods and drinks that have a lot of calcium include:
Foods and drinks that have a lot of vitamin D include:
People’s bodies can also get vitamin D from the sun. The body uses sunlight that shines on the skin to make vitamin D.
Supplements are pills, capsules, liquids, or tablets that have nutrients in them. Supplements are another way people can get calcium and vitamin D. Some supplements contain either calcium or vitamin D. Others have both.
People who do not get enough calcium or vitamin D from their food and drink might need to take supplements.
If your doctor recommends that you take calcium or vitamin D supplements, ask him or her which type, how much, and when to take the supplements. For example, some calcium supplements can be taken with food, but others should be taken on an empty stomach. The type and dose of supplement that is right for you will also depend on your medical problems and the other medicines you take.
Common side effects of calcium supplements can include:
Many people find that they can reduce these side effects by splitting up their calcium dose. For example, they might take a few small doses of calcium each day instead of one large dose.
Taking calcium supplements can also increase a person’s chance of getting kidney stones. Kidney stones are small, hard stone-like objects that can form in a person’s kidneys.
It depends, because each person is different. Ask your doctor or nurse how much calcium and vitamin D you need each day. Women who have gone through menopause and no longer get monthly periods usually need more calcium each day than women who still get monthly periods.