Osteoporosis, a medical term that comes from the Latin word for “porous bones,” is one of the most significant health crises facing Americans today. In fact, the U.S. National Institutes of Health warn that more than 50 million Americans are at risk, and the International Osteoporosis Foundation reports that one in three women and one in five men around the world are at risk of fracturing a bone due to this disease.
But there’s good news. Besides a wide range of preventative measures, such as engaging in regular exercise, eating more foods that are rich in calcium, and eating less meat and dairy, there is also a wide range of medications to help treat osteoporosis.
Consult with your physician about which of the following medical treatments are right for you, as each medication treats a very specific root factor or type of bone loss:
- Hormone therapy or hormone-related medications
Let’s break down how each of these medications for osteoporosis work, how they affect your bone health, and some of the potential side effects you’ll want to be aware of.
Bisphosphonates are one of the most widely used medications for osteoporosis, especially among women with millions of postmenopausal women on this type of drug. There are many specific drugs in this class of medications, with notable options including:
- Alendronate (brand name Fosamax): This is an oral medication that you can either take once every seven days or once a day.
- Ibandronate (brand name Boniva): It’s available either as a once-a-month oral medication or as an injection that your doctor gives you four times a year.
- Risedronate (brand name Actonel): This is an oral medication that you can either take once a day, once a week or once a month.
- Zoledronic acid (brand name Reclast): Your doctor gives this to you via an IV infusion once a year.
The benefit of bisphosphonates is twofold:
- These drugs slow down the rate at which you lose bone density.
- These drugs may also help to lower the pain you may feel with osteoporosis.
With the wide range of options in this drug class, you can also choose how actively you want to manage your osteoporosis. For example, some people don’t mind taking a daily or weekly pill while others love the convenience of getting an IV infusion just once a year.
Of course, as with any bone health treatment, bisphosphonates have powerful benefits and also potentially powerful side effects that you need to be aware of.
The downside to bisphosphonates is that they must be taken correctly — if they are not taken correctly, they are known to cause esophageal ulcers. If you’re taking an oral dose, you may experience irritation or pain in your throat or digestive system, including heartburn, pain when you swallow, and even ulcers in your stomach.
If you’re taking your bisphosphonate dose via an injection or an IV, you may experience symptoms like muscle aches, fever and headaches for a few days after the treatment.
Additionally, bisphosphonates are known to affect your levels of calcium. Your doctor will screen you for your calcium levels and, if your calcium levels are already low, will work with you on raising your calcium levels before prescribing a bisphosphonate.
Osteoclasts are a type of bone cell that speeds up the rate at which your bones lose their mineral density.
Without going to deep into scientific terms, a specific type of protein known as a receptor activator of nuclear factor kappa-Β ligand (RANKL) affects osteoclasts and can, therefore, influence the production of osteoclasts, and thus the speed of the development of your osteoporosis and bone loss.
A relatively new treatment, denosumab (brand name Prolia) uses an antibody that links up with the RANKL protein and helps slow down how your bones breakdown and lose density.
It’s specifically aimed at adults where osteoclasts are a root cause of their weaker bones. This includes women with postmenopausal osteoporosis who are at risk of fractures of their spine and hip, as well as men with a high risk of osteoporosis-related bone fractures.
You receive the antibody treatment through twice-yearly injections from your doctor.
Side effects for this antibody medication include reduced levels of calcium in your blood, which can cause secondary symptoms like muscle cramps and tingling in your fingers or toes. Those who have a weaker immune system, such as men or women with cancer or HIV, are also at a higher risk of developing serious infections when on this antibody drug.
Next page: More information on osteoporosis medications, and more.