Doctors Warn of Crisis in Osteoporosis Treatment

By Pat Anson, Editor

Thirty years of progress in treating osteoporosis and reducing bone fractures in the elderly is rapidly being reversed, according to two bone health experts.

In an article called A Crisis in the Treatment of Osteoporosis, published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, Sundeep Khosla, MD, and Elizabeth Shane, MD, say too many patients at high risk of fractures are not being diagnosed or treated for osteoporosis, even though hormones and bisphosphonate drugs are available to help strengthen their bones.

“The field of osteoporosis may be coming full circle, and that is not good for the millions of older women and men who will suffer painful and disabling spine and hip fractures - fractures that might have been prevented,” Khosla and Shane wrote.

“As physicians, we are now watching as the fundamental progress made to reduce fractures and dramatically improve the quality of life of our patients during the past 30 years unravels.”

More than 10 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis and 44 million have its precursor, a loss in bone density that raises the risk of fractures and disability.  Breaking a bone in your spine or hip may be so traumatic – especially for the elderly -- that it doubles your chances of developing chronic widespread body pain.

Bisphosphonates such as Fosamax have been found to be effective at slowing the loss of bone mass and reducing fractures, but concerns about their use rose when patients reported side effects such as joint and musculoskeletal pain. That made some patients reluctant to take bisphosphonates and doctors less likely to prescribe them.  

Khosla and Shane cite a recent study that found only 3 percent of patients with a hip fracture in 2013 were given bisphosphonates to strengthen their bones, down from 15% of patients in 2004.

“In short, we, as physicians who care deeply about the treatment of patients with osteoporosis, find ourselves in a dire situation. At a point in time when we have developed pharmacologic tools capable of preventing enormous suffering and needless mortality, we may well be coming back full circle: the downward spiral of vertebral fracture, hip fracture, immobility, loss of independence, and premature death that we thought we had conquered may soon become the accepted norm again,” they wrote. 

“There can be no more urgent call to action for our field than we face today. We must find ways to ensure that patients who need appropriate treatment for osteoporosis are not only prescribed effective medications, but are also equipped with the information they need to make an informed choice on taking these medications.”

Khosla is an endocrinologist, research scientist, professor of medicine and director of the Clinical and Translational Science Award Program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Shane is an endocrinologist, research scientist, professor of medicine and vice chair for clinical and epidemiological research at Columbia University in New York.

A quarter-million Americans sustain a hip fracture each year, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, but less than a quarter are treated for osteoporosis afterwards.

A recent survey of 42 hip fracture patients found a startling level of misinformation and mismanagement surrounding osteoporosis. A majority (57%) said their doctors did not recommend osteoporosis medication and one in four said they would reject taking the drugs.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of those who said they were being treated for osteoporosis were taking calcium and vitamin D supplements, which researchers say are "useless" at preventing osteoporotic fractures.

Another recent study found that elderly men are far less likely to be screened for osteoporosis or to take preventive measures against the bone-thinning disease than women. The risk of death after sustaining a hip fracture is twice as high in men compared to women.