While bisphosphonates and other similar drugs remain the medically proven gold standard for treatment of osteoporosis, there are other things you can do to strengthen your bones. Especially if you’ve been diagnosed with osteopenia, and are on the fence about going the drug route, you might consider complementary and alternative osteoporosis treatments - like the following.
I’m a breast cancer survivor. Unfortunately, the drugs I took to prevent a recurrence of that disease led to a different problem: decreased bone mineral density. After reading the literature and studying the data, I concluded that a course of drugs - the bisphosphonate Actonel - was my best bet to try to slow bone loss.
Shortly after my experience, one of my best friends, Janet, was astounded to discover (as the result of a baseline DEXA scan) that her T-scores were low enough to give her a very unexpected diagnosis of osteoporosis. Her T-scores were lower than mine; yet she decided - after reading the literature and studying the data - to forego drugs.
Already living a healthy lifestyle, Janet made sure she was getting enough calcium and vitamin D, then ratcheted up her exercise program - chiefly by becoming a passionate cyclist. Now she rides regularly, up to 50 miles at a time.
Who made the better treatment choice - me, or Janet?
Well, the jury’s out on that one. I lasted just about a year on Actonel before deciding the side effects weren’t worth it. I replaced my weekly pill with a heavier exercise regimen, including lots of weightlifting, and short bursts of bone-stressing impact exercise: jogging on a treadmill.
My most recent DEXA scan, taken last year, showed that my bone loss had stopped in one location, and slowed considerably in the other.
And how about Janet? Well, she hasn’t had her next DEXA scan yet. But she’s very fit, healthy, happy, and hoping her next set of T-scores reflects how hard she’s worked to keep her bones in good shape - sans drugs.
If you’ve been diagnosed with full-blown osteoporosis, you’ve no doubt been advised that drugs are the only surefire way to slow bone loss - but you don’t have to stop there. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is something that can be added to your drug regimen. Or, in the case of an osteopenia diagnosis, replace drugs altogether.
How can CAM work to improve bone health? Simply put, it’s other ways, besides drugs, to strengthen bones and deal with other conditions that might increase your risk of fractures - e.g., poor balance, weak muscles, and pain that prohibits regular exercise.
Here are a few CAM therapies to consider:
-Tai Chi: This Chinese martial art is far from violent; in fact, it’s often termed "moving meditation." If you live in a city, you may have seen a group of people, usually Asian, often older, gathered in a grassy area, moving verrrry slowly through a series of poses; that’s Tai Chi.
The National Institutes of Health describes Tai Chi as "“slow, relaxed, graceful movements, each flowing into the next. The body is in constant motion, and posture is important” Individuals practicing tai chi must also concentrate, putting aside distracting thoughts; and they must breathe in a deep and relaxed, but focused manner." ("Osteoporosis," 2010)
How does Tai Chi help your bones? Well, it’s a low-impact, weight-bearing exercise, which encourages your osteoblasts (the cells that build bone) to stay active. It increases flexibility, muscle strength, and balance, all of which can help prevent falls. It also lessens pain and stiffness - which makes it easier to do your other bone-building exercises.
Tai Chi classes are often offered at town recreation or senior centers; through adult education programs, or at health club. Check around; I’ll bet you can find one somewhere. I’ve done it; I like it. It’s an exercise where you can work at your own level, good for us older folks.
-Omega-3 fatty acids: A proven way to improve cardiovascular health, Omega-3 fatty acids have also shown some benefit to those with rheumatoid arthritis, reducing morning stiffness and joint swelling.
Studies of the benefits of Omega-3s for treating osteoporosis are currently incomplete, though ongoing. However, since they benefit you in other ways, it probably wouldn’t hurt to add them to your diet. The easiest way? A fish oil supplement, which can be found in the vitamin section of any drugstore.
-Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and acupuncture: TCM has been proven over thousands of years to help treat many different physical ailments. Based on herbs (usually brewed into tea or soup), TCM can improve how your body uses calcium, which in turn helps bone health.
You’re probably familiar with acupuncture, right? Lots of little needles" It’s better than it sounds The needles are ultra-thin, and don’t hurt like a regular needle would.
Acupuncture needles are used to realign the body’s natural energy, lessening stress and encouraging healing. The acupuncture practitioner determines the exact locations on your body to insert the needles, depending on your symptoms and conditions. The needles remain in place for 10 to 60 minutes. Typically, 3 to 5 weekly treatments are all it takes to either reduce pain and increase energy; or to decide that acupuncture’s not going to work for you.
And how does acupuncture help with osteoporosis? Simply by making you feel better, both physically and emotionally. When you feel good, it’s easier to do your exercises; and exercise is key to bone health.
Want to get started with TCM and/or acupuncture? Check out the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM), which offers a list of certified practitioners. (Vann, 2009)
Vann, M. (2009, March 11). Complementary and alternative medical treatments for osteoporosis. Retrieved from http://www.everydayhealth.com/osteoporosis/alternative-osteoporosis-treatment.aspx
Osteoporosis. (2010, August). Retrieved from http://nccam.nih.gov/health/osteoporosis
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.