Whole Body Vibration (WBV), a purported treatment for osteoporosis patients or those experiencing bone loss, seems like a simple, sensible way to slow bone density decline; an alternative to both bisphosphonates, and strenuous exercise. But does it work? At this point, the jury is out.
What exactly is Whole Body Vibration?
In the context of bone loss and osteoporosis, it’s a treatment whereby patients with osteoporosis, or those at perceived high risk of bone loss, stand (or do light exercise) on a vibrating platform, generally about the size of a large bathroom scale.
Treatment can be given once a week, every day, or anything in between; it can last from 15 seconds to about 30 minutes at a time.
The low-intensity (gentle) vibrations generated by the machine are said to mimic the effects of weight-bearing exercises: making muscles work against gravity, thereby stressing bones just enough to cause them to rebuild themselves, ostensibly increasing their density.
Does WBV work? Does it increase bone density in those who use it?
After reading and digesting a thoroughly detailed, 46-page report prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by the Minnesota Evidence-Based Practice Center in Minneapolis, I’d tend to agree with the report’s conclusion:
"Little scientific evidence evaluates the benefits and harms of whole-body vibration therapy for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. Key informants unanimously urged caution in making claims about whole-body vibration for osteoporosis because of the lack of evidence about the optimal target population, optimal treatment protocol, and long-term effects.
"Whole-body vibration therapy for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis is still investigational with little known about benefits and harms. Further research is needed to fully understand what role this therapy should have."
In other words, there’s been very little scientific evidence collected thus far on WBV’s benefits and potential side effects. Looking at the small amount of scientific data that has been collected, it’s impossible to say if 1) WBV helps build bones; and 2) what long-term harm it may do its users.
Because of this lack of study and inconclusive data, it’s impossible for physicians to recommend WBV as an osteoporosis treatment wholeheartedly; and equally impossible to rule out its benefits.
All of that said, why would anyone consider WBV?
Well, it’s a tempting alternative for osteoporosis/osteopenia patients who can’t stomach bisphosphonates - literally. While drugs such as Boniva, Actonel, and Fosamax have a proven track record of promoting bone health, some users also experience seriously uncomfortable gastrointestinal side effects. In fact, these GI issues are the chief reason for non-compliance: patients not taking their medicine.
Second, there’s a population that’s already so weak and frail, the intensity of exercise necessary to positively impact bones just isn’t possible. WBV is gentle; there are even WBV devices appropriate for those in wheelchairs. It doesn’t require a whole lot of physical ability to undertake WBV treatments.
If you’re considering WBV, your best bet is treatment at a medical facility, typically as part of a physical therapy program, rather than purchasing a WBV machine for home use. WBV machines are expensive; and only the low-intensity type is suitable for patients with bone loss. Your hospital is much more able to both evaluate and afford these machines.
You should also consider, going in, that WBV may or may not help you; and it may or may not hurt you, both short- and long-term.
If you’re absolutely set on trying WBV, convinced its potential benefits outweigh its potential harms, then go ahead; no guarantees, but it might just work for you.
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.