Osteoporosis treatment unpacked

Can you treat osteoporosis? That’s the question that the 3 million people in the UK who live with the condition want to know. Every year, 500,000 fractures occur because of osteoporosis. Treating osteoporosis is complex, with no complete osteoporosis treatment currently available. We look at the treatment options for osteoporosis, and explore some ways that you can reduce the impact on your bones and your life.

What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a medical condition that causes the bones to weaken. It makes the fragile and more likely to break. It’s often called the ‘silent disease’ as it’s only diagnosed when a fall or impact causes a break. Doctors will only know you have osteoporosis after conducting a bone density test.

As we get older, we naturally begin to lose bone density and mass. Some people lose a greater amount of bone than others, which can lead to osteoporosis. Women are more likely to experience osteoporosis as they lose bone mass quickly after the menopause.

Other osteoporosis causes include genetics. Those with a family history of osteoporosis are more likely to develop it. The long-term use of medicines that affect bone strength and other healthcare conditions can also cause osteoporosis. The lifestyles we lead can also contribute to our risk of developing osteoporosis.

Treating osteoporosis

If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, or believe you are at risk of developing the condition, there are things that you can do to reduce its impact.

The first thing you can do to tackle osteoporosis is to make changes to your diet and your lifestyle. You need to ensure that you are getting enough calcium and Vitamin D. They both contribute to bone strength and are essential parts of a healthy diet.

If you drink and smoke heavily think about cutting down. Several studies have linked smoking to osteoporosis, becoming classed as a risk factor for the diseases. Excessive alcohol intake is a risk for osteoporosis. One Korean study found that heavy drinkers had a 1.7 times greater risk of developing osteoporosis than light drinkers.

Making changes to your lifestyle may seem challenging on your own, but there is help available. The NHS Smokefree service provides valuable resources to help you quit. It’s also worth talking to your GP to learn of local services that may be available to you.

Reducing the amount you drink involves knowing how much you’re drinking. The NHS drinks tracker is a great resource, whether you have osteoporosis or not! The NHS also provides support for those who want to cut down on their alcohol intake.

Dietary supplements

GPs may prescribe calcium and Vitamin D supplements to those with osteoporosis. The average adult should ingest 700 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day, and ten micrograms of Vitamin D a day.

A doctor may prescribe supplements if he or she is concerned that you are not getting enough calcium or Vitamin D as part of your diet, or if they feel you would benefit from more.

Stay active

You must stay active with osteoporosis. This shouldn’t involve vigorous exercise like running that can damage bones, but regular, low-impact exercises like walking and swimming.

Low-intensity Vibration (LiV) has been established as a preventative therapy to slow and even stop the development of osteoporosis. Recognised by the Royal Osteoporosis Society, people with osteoporosis across the world are beginning to learn how LiV can help them build stronger bones and live healthier lives for longer.

Osteoporosis medications

There are different medications that are used to treat osteoporosis, including bisphosphonates, HRT, parathyroid hormone, selective oestrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) and testosterone treatment.

We explore them in more detail below:

Bisphosphonates

Bisphosphonates work by slowing the speed at which your bones decay. Essentially, they keep your bones stronger for longer.

There are four common bisphosphonates prescribed for osteoporosis (alendronic acid. ibandronic acid, risedronic acid and zoledronic acid). They are given as tablets or as injections. You will only be prescribed one.

Bisphosphonates take some time to work. In most people, this is between 6 months and a year. While effective you won’t be able to take bisphosphonates forever, and there are side effects, including irritation to the food pipe, issues with swallowing and stomach pain.

HRT

HRT is prescribed to women going through the menopause. It’s also been established that HRT can strengthen bones too.

However, prolonged use comes with a range of side-effects, including raising the risk of certain cancers. For this reason, it’s rarely prescribed to treat osteoporosis.

Parathyroid hormone

The body procures parathyroid hormone to regulate the amount of calcium in our bones. Given as injections, parathyroid hormone treatments stimulate the cells that create new bones.

The treatment is effective but is only used in those with very low bone density. This is partly due to the negative side-effects of the treatment, including nausea and vomiting.

Selective oestrogen receptor modulators (SERMs)

SERMs help your body to maintain bone density and to reduce the risk of bone fractures by strengthening them. They work like the hormone oestrogen and can be effective.

Taken daily as a tablet, there are side effects, including hot flushes, leg cramps and potential for blood clots.

Testosterone treatment

Osteoporosis can be caused by a lack of testosterone, so in some cases GPs may prescribe testosterone treatments. Scientists have concluded that maintaining an optimal level of androgen (testosterone) is essential at fighting off osteoporosis.

Treatment or management?

The aim of all treatments for osteoporosis is to limit the impact of the condition. Bisphosphonates and other treatments can improve bone density and support bone growth, but they are not without their downsides. In fact, all drug treatments for osteoporosis come with side effects.

There is currently no cure for osteoporosis, but making changes to your lifestyle, stimulating the growth of new bone through LiV and taking all prescription medicines can help you to stop osteoporosis in its tracks, allowing you to do the things you love for longer.