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What can we do about musculoskeletal pain from bisphosphonates?

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Bisphosphonates, especially intravenous zoledronic acid, often cause influenza-like symptoms such as severe musculoskeletal pain, fever, headache, malaise, and fatigue, sometimes accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. As many as 30% of patients experience these symptoms, which are usually transient, last up to 1 week, and, in most patients, only rarely recur with subsequent infusions.

It is essential to counsel and reassure patients about these reactions before starting treatment. We recommend that patients take acetaminophen before intravenous bis­phosphonate infusions, and if an acute-phase reaction occurs, we provide adequate supportive care with acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). If patients report severe musculoskeletal pain, then consider discontinuing the bisphosphonate treatment.


The acute-phase reaction is a transient inflammatory state characterized by influenza-like symptoms such as fever, myalgia, joint pain, and nausea. It often occurs within the first few days after initial exposure to a bisphosphonate. Patients tend to rate the symptoms as mild to moderate. Symptoms may recur with subsequent doses; however, the incidence rate decreases substantially with each subsequent dose.

With intravenous bisphosphonates

Reid et al1 analyzed data from a trial in which 7,765 postmenopausal women with osteoporosis were randomized to receive intravenous zoledronic acid or placebo; 42.4% of the zoledronic acid group experienced symptoms that could be attributed to an acute-phase reaction after the first infusion, compared with 11.7% of the placebo group (P < .0001). Statistically significant differences (P < .0001) in symptoms between the groups included the following:

  • Fever 20.3% vs 2.5%
  • Musculoskeletal symptoms 19.9% vs 4.7%
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms 7.8% vs 2.1%.

Of the patients describing musculoskeletal symptoms after receiving zoledronic acid, most (79%) described them as generalized pain or discomfort, while about 25% said they were regional, usually localized to the back, neck, chest, and shoulders, 5% described joint stiffness, and 2.5% reported joint swelling.1

In this and other studies,1–3 acute-phase reactions most commonly occurred within the first few days after the infusion and were rated as mild to moderate in 90% of cases.1,2 Patients who reported an acute-phase reaction were not more likely to opt out of subsequent infusions. The authors postulated that this was most likely because acute-phase reactions were mild and transient, and most resolved within 1 week.1 The incidence decreased with each subsequent infusion of zoledronic acid1–3; rates of the acute-phase reaction at years 1, 2, and 3 were 30%, 7%, and 3%, respectively.1

With oral bisphosphonates

The acute-phase reaction is less common with oral bisphosphonates (occurring in 5.6% of patients in a retrospective study4) and is usually less severe.4,5

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