Concerns about drugs to treat osteoporosis

September 9, 2011 3:04:39 PM PDT
Osteoporosis or weakened bones is becoming an epidemic as people age.

There's a group of drugs to treat the illness, but the Food and Drug Administration is concerned about the potential for side effects.

Osteoporosis affects mainly women after menopause who are often treated with one of the drugs called bisphosphonates. Rare side effects are reported with these drugs, and the FDA is asking how often the side effects happen, and if they are truly the result of the medications.

Drugs include Fosamax, Reclast, Actonel and Boniva. They slow bone loss and may rebuild lost bone.

"The FDA wants to look at the rare side effects of the drugs," Dr. Holly Thacker of the Cleveland Clinic said.

Side effects such as jawbone damage, cancer of the esophagus and ironically one type of a broken hip.

But Dr. Thacker warns that the rare risk of any of these complications is dramatically less that the high risk of a broken bone and death from osteoporosis.

"People tend to overestimate the risk of treatment as opposed to the risk of not treating a medical condition," she said.

Because the side effects are rare, the FDA must consider if they are really complications of drug use, or if they occur in the same numbers in people who do not take the drugs. Dr. Thacker adds that even if the drugs are responsible.

The FDA may leave them on the market because of their benefit in preventing broken bones.

For postmenopausal women on these drugs, don't panic and speak with your doctor about doing periodic bone densities and other lab tests.

The bone density test is generally done every two years for stable patients and perhaps more often in some cases. The other tests are generally blood and urine tests. We'll update this story when the FDA bisphosphonate panel announces their conclusions.