The Family Health Guide

Medications for Postmenopausal Osteoporosis Prevention

Risk of osteoporosis increases after menopause, when levels of estrogen — which helps preserve bone density — drop. Until recently, most doctors recommended long-term hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to treat postmenopausal women who need medication to prevent bone loss. But things changed after results from a large trial on a common HRT drug showed that estrogen plus progestin (as the medication Prempro) did more harm than good. An increased risk for breast cancer and cardiovascular events outweighed the benefits of less colorectal cancer and fewer fractures. (See the Update from July 2002 for more information on the trial.)

Health experts now encourage most women who have been taking long-term HRT for osteoporosis prevention to consider an alternative. Fortunately there are several options. Each of the FDA-approved treatments (see chart) has potential benefits and risks that women and their doctors should weigh before making a decision. Even with HRT's proven risks, it may still be a good choice for certain women — especially in lower doses, which recent data have shown to have bone benefits comparable to higher, standard doses.

Approved medications for osteoporosis prevention

Medication

How to take it

Bone benefits

Side effects

Comments

Alendronate (Fosamax)

Orally, once daily in the morning or as a larger dose once a week; take with 6–8 ounces of water and stay upright for 30 minutes.

Increases bone density at the spine and hip; reduces spinal and hip fracture risk. Side effects uncommon.

Heartburn, nausea, inflammation of the esophagus, muscle pain.

Interferes with cells that break down bone. Well-tolerated when taken properly.

Risedronate (Actonel)

Orally, once daily in the morning or as a larger dose once a week; take with 6–8 ounces of water and stay upright for 30 minutes.

Increases bone density at the spine and hip; reduces spinal and hip fracture risk. Side effects uncommon.

Abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, joint pain.

Interferes with cells that break down bone. Well-tolerated when taken properly.

Raloxifene (Evista)

Orally, once daily, any time.

Increases bone density (but less so than alendronate or risedronate); reduces spinal fracture risk. Side effects uncommon.

Hot flashes, leg cramps, deep-vein blood clots.

Acts like estrogen in bone but is an anti-estrogen in breast tissue; may reduce breast cancer risk.

Estrogen (Premarin, Estrace, other brands)

Orally, once daily, any time; or weekly by skin patch.

Increases bone density; some evidence for fracture reduction.

Increases the risk for breast cancer (after 4–5 years) and cardiovascular events when combined with a progestin (as Prempro) and taken orally.

May be recommended if other medications are not tolerable or menopausal symptoms persist.

Sources: Boosting Bone Strength: A Guide to Preventing and Treating Osteoporosis, Harvard Health Publications, Boston, 2000; Managing Osteoporosis, Part 3: Prevention and Treatment of Postmenopausal Osteoporosis, American Medical Association, 2000; Osteoporosis: Guide to Prevention, Diagnosis, and Treatment, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, 2002

December 2002 Update