Brittle bones: What to do

Osteoporosis can be effectively treated, if you get the right tests and therapies

Last updated: October 2010

Marvin Lipman, M.D.

Recently, a 65-year-old retired math teacher asked whether she really had to take the bone-building drug prescribed by her gynecologist because of an abnormal T-score on a bone densitometry test. "And what's a T-score anyway?" she asked. She had heard a lot about the side effects of those drugs, such as heartburn, ulcers, weakened jawbones, and, paradoxically, leg fractures. She was very leery of embarking on a relationship of five or more years with Fosamax, even though it's available in a less costly, generic version.

She showed me her bone-densitometry test results. I noted that the bone-density measurement at her hip site was -2.6, which classifies that joint as osteoporotic, according to a somewhat arbitrary rating system designed by the World Health Organization. A T-score of 1.0 is normal; a score of -1.1 to -2.4 indicates osteopenia (mild bone loss, which is not a disease); a score of -2.5 or greater defines osteoporosis, or brittle bone disease.

Direct-to-consumer ads for brittle bones

Illustration: James Steinberg

The diagnosis of osteoporosis was once made on the basis of the "washed out" appearance of the bone on an X-ray or via an actual bone biopsy. In the late 1980s, the advent of dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) paved the way for a class of drugs called bisphosphonates (such as Actonel, Boniva, and Fosamax). Those drugs were approved not only to treat osteoporosis but also to prevent it. Direct-to-consumer ads proliferated, urging patients to be tested and treated. Some makers of popular bone drugs subsidized the rental of DEXA (or DXA) units for practitioners' offices.

But DEXA results were not the only way to determine a fracture risk. Beyond the usual predictors of age (older than 65), gender (female), race (Asian or Caucasian), low weight, and previous fracture, there were current smoking habits, previous use of corticosteroids, family history of fracture, excessive alcohol use, and rheumatoid arthritis. Additional risk factors included vitamin D deficiency, thyroid or parathyroid hyperfunction, and celiac disease. Factor in causes of repeated falls, such as poor balance and muscle weakness, and you can see that DEXA measurements can often be just one of myriad predictors.

Such was the case with one of my patients, a math teacher. Except for a T-score of -2.6 based on a rating system designed by the World Health Organization, she had no risk factors for future fractures. Using a computer tool called FRAX (www.sheffield.ac.uk/frax), developed by WHO, I was quickly able to determine her 10-year fracture probability. Despite her ominous T-score, according to the FRAX calculation, the likelihood of her having a fracture was only 2.9 percent over the next decade.

Considering her aversion to taking medication and noting studies that determined that cost-effective treatment to prevent future fractures was warranted when the probability was 3 percent or greater, I decided that medication wasn't necessary now. I made sure that her daily calcium and vitamin D intake were adequate, stressed the importance of weight-bearing exercise, and asked her to return in one year for another bone-density test.

How to strengthen bones and prevent fractures

  • Eat calcium-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, low-fat dairy products, shellfish, canned sardines, and salmon, and take supplements as directed by your doctor, to make sure you're getting at least 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day.
  • Check your vitamin D blood level. It should be greater than 30 nanograms per milliliter; supplement your diet as directed by your doctor.
  • Spend 30 minutes or more each day doing weight-bearing exercises such as walking and weightlifting to support bones and increase muscle strength.
  • Do a safety check of your home, which is where most falls occur.
  • Learn tai chi or similar exercises to improve balance, and use a cane if necessary.

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