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Osteoporosis and osteopenia: Latest treatment recommendations


This transcript has been edited for clarity.

I’m Dr. Neil Skolnik. Today’s topic is the new osteoporosis treatment guidelines issued by the American College of Physicians (ACP). The focus of the guidelines is treatment of osteoporosis. But first, I want to discuss screening.

In its 2018 statement, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) says that osteoporosis should be screened for in women older than 65 years of age, and those who are younger who are at increased risk based on a risk assessment tool (usually the FRAX tool). There is not enough evidence to weigh in for or against screening men. The other large organization that weighs in on screening is the Bone Health & Osteoporosis Foundation, which agrees with the USPSTF, but in addition says that we should be screening men over age 70 and men who are younger (age 50 to 69) who have risk factors. We should also screen anyone who has a fracture after low impact or no trauma.

Let’s now go on to the ACP treatment guidelines. Osteoporosis is defined as bone mineral density at the femoral neck or the lumbar spine, or both, with a T score less than -2.5.

For postmenopausal women with osteoporosis, you should use a bisphosphonate as first-line treatment to reduce the risk for future fractures. This is given a strong recommendation based on a high certainty of evidence. Bisphosphonates vs. placebo over 3 years leads to one fewer hip fracture per 150 patients treated and one fewer vertebral fracture per 50 people treated.

All the other recommendations in the guidelines are considered “conditional recommendations” that are correct for most people. But whether they make sense for an individual patient depends upon other details, as well as their values and preferences. For instance, treatment of osteoporosis in men is given a conditional recommendation, not because the evidence suggests that it’s not as effective, but because there is not as much evidence. Initial treatment for a man with osteoporosis is with bisphosphonates. Men do get osteoporosis and account for about 30% of hip fractures. This is not a surprise to anyone who takes care of older adults.

For postmenopausal women or men who you would want to treat but who can’t tolerate a bisphosphonate, then the recommendation is to use a RANK ligand inhibitor. Denosumab can be used as second-line treatment to reduce the risk for fractures. Remember, bisphosphonates and denosumab are antiresorptive drugs, meaning they slow the progression of osteoporosis. The anabolic drugs, on the other hand, such as the sclerostin inhibitor romosozumab and recombinant human parathyroid hormone (PTH) teriparatide, increase bone density. The anabolic agents should be used only in women with primary osteoporosis who are at very high risk for fractures, and use of these agents always needs to be followed by an antiresorptive agent, because otherwise there’s a risk for rebound osteoporosis and an increased risk for vertebral fractures.

Now, how about osteopenia? The guidelines recommend that for women over 65 with osteopenia, use an individualized approach influenced by the level of risk for fracture, including increased age, low body weight, current smoking, hip fracture in a parent, fall risk, and a personal history of fracture. The guidelines note that increasing the duration of bisphosphonate therapy beyond 3-5 years does reduce the risk for new vertebral fractures, but it doesn’t reduce the risk for other fractures and it increases the risk for osteonecrosis of the jaw and atypical hip fractures. Therefore, the guidelines say that we should use bisphosphonates only for 3-5 years unless someone is at extremely high risk. It’s also important to note that there’s a fivefold higher risk for atypical femoral fractures among Asian women.

Don’t forget about adequate vitamin D and calcium. And most importantly, don’t forget about exercise, particularly exercise aimed at improving balance and quadriceps strength, which helps prevent falls.

Dr. Skolnik is professor, department of family medicine, Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, and associate director, department of family medicine, Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health. He disclosed ties with AstraZeneca, Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Sanofi, Sanofi Pasteur, and Teva.

A version of this article originally appeared on

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