For Healthier Bones, Take a 3-Year Drug Holiday

New research in osteoporosis may impact medication regimens for patients taking bisphosphonates.

Patients taking bisphosphonates for osteoporosis and osteopenia may benefit from a break in treatment therapy, according to a recent study conducted at Loyola University Health System. The researchers found that patients can safely take a “drug holiday” of up to 3 years.

Bisphosphonates are proven to increase bone density and reduce fracture incidence, but previous research indicates that prolonged use may reverse the beneficial effects. Physicians typically recommend treatment breaks after 4 to 5 years of therapy; however, the ideal length of those breaks remains unclear.

“These drugs are potentially harmful when taken for long durations, yet little has been known until now about the length of time osteoporosis patients should go,” said Pauline Camacho, MD, the study’s lead author and director of the Loyola University Osteoporosis and Metabolic Bone Disease Center.

Dr. Camacho and her colleagues followed 139 patients with osteoporosis and osteopenia who had been taking bisphosphonates for an average of 6.8 years before discontinuing their treatment for a 5-year break from 2005 to 2010. Although bone loss increased 6 months into the break, bone mineral density was not significantly affected.

Dr. Camacho said more research is needed to determine the optimal duration for the drug holiday, but that the findings do suggest patients can “relatively safely discontinue their treatment for at least 3 years.” She suggests patients who take treatment breaks meet with health care professionals on a regular basis to monitor bone health and immediately report fractures to a physician.