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What can we do about musculoskeletal pain from bisphosphonates?

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Musculoskeletal pain related to the acute-phase reaction is thought to be due to transient release of inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin 6, interferon gamma, and tumor necrosis factor alpha from macrophages, monocytes, and gamma-delta T cells.6

Bisphosphonates are taken up by osteoclasts and inhibit their function. But bisphosphonates are not all the same: they can be divided into aminobisphosphonates (eg, alendronate, pamidronate, risedronate, zoledronic acid) and nonaminobisphosphonates (eg, clodronate, etidronate).

Inside the osteoclasts, aminobisphosphonates inhibit farnesyl diphosphate synthase in the meval­onate pathways, thus disrupting cell signaling and leading to apoptosis.7 However, inhibition of farnesyl diphosphate synthase also increases intracellular levels of isopentyl pyrophosphate, which induces T-cell activation; this is thought to result in release of inflammatory cytokines, leading to the acute-phase reaction.7,8

In contrast, nonaminobisphosphonates such as clodronate and etidronate, after being internalized, are metabolized into nonhydrolyzable adenosine triphosphate, which is toxic to the osteoclast. The acute-phase reaction or influenza-like illness is unique to aminobisphosphonates; nonaminobisphosphonates have not been associated with an acute-phase reaction.


With NSAIDs, acetaminophen

Wark et al9 randomized 481 postmenopausal women who had osteopenia but who had never received bisphosphonates to 4 treatment groups:

  • Zoledronic acid 5 mg intravenously plus acetaminophen 1,000 mg every 6 hours for 3 days
  • Zoledronic acid 5 mg intravenously plus ibuprofen 400 mg every 6 hours for 3 days
  • Zoledronic acid 5 mg intravenously plus 2 placebo capsules every 6 hours for 3 days
  • Placebo infusion plus 2 placebo capsules every 6 hours for 3 days.

Patients were assessed for fever and worsening symptoms over 3 days after the infusion. The group that got zoledronic acid infusion and placebo capsules had the highest rates of fever (64%) and worsening symptoms (76%); acetaminophen and ibuprofen reduced these rates to an approximately equal extent, to 37% for fever and 46% (acetaminophen) and 49% (ibuprofen) for worsening symptoms. The group that received placebo bisphosphonate infusions had the lowest rates of fever (11%) and worsening symptoms (17%).

Silverman et al10 found that acetaminophen 650 mg taken 45 minutes before intravenous zoledronic acid infusion and continued every 6 hours for 3 days led to an absolute risk reduction of 21% in the incidence of fever or use of rescue medication compared with placebo.

Trials of other agents

In a study of 60 women,11 30 received an oral bolus of cholecalciferol 300,000 IU 5 days before zoledronic acid 5 mg infusion plus daily calcium 1,000 mg and vitamin D 800 IU, and 30 received a placebo pill 5 days before the same infusion and vitamin regimen as the other group. The preinfusion oral bolus did not decrease the incidence of acute-phase reactions, although it led to a small decrease in the severity of musculoskeletal pain (the median pain score was reduced from 2 to 1 on a scale of 0 to 10).

Other interventions such as fluvastatin and oral dexamethasone given before intravenous zoledronic acid did not reduce the severity or incidence of the acute-phase reaction.10,12,13

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