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What Is the Connection between Steroids and Osteoporosis?

By Clara Kedrek
Updated May 17, 2024
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The connection between steroids and osteoporosis is that the chronic use of corticosteroids, commonly referred to as steroids when used as a medical treatment, can increase the risk for the development of osteoporosis. Although these medications are helpful in treating a variety of conditions, they can weaken the bones. Patients who take steroids on a chronic basis are often started on prophylactic medications in order to prevent the development of weak bones. Others who develop osteoporosis as a result of steroid use are treated with the same measures as patients who develop osteoporosis for other reasons.

Corticosteroids, also known as glucocorticoids, are commonly referred to as steroids by the medical community. These pharmaceutical agents are not anabolic steroids, the medication commonly referred to as steroids by the general public, which are abused by athletes and other people in attempts to build body muscle mass. Corticosteroids are used to treat a wide range of medical conditions, including autoimmune conditions, cancers, endocrinologic abnormalities, and skin rashes. Different formulations can be taken by mouth, by injection directly into the veins, or as a cream applied to the skin.

Steroids and osteoporosis are linked because these medications can have a number of different effects on bone. They impair the formation of bone. Additionally, they can kill cells called osteocytes, which are cells important in the creation and maintenance of bone tissue. Prolonged steroid use can therefore lead to osteoporosis, which is a condition characterized by having weak bones with decreased structural integrity that are prone to breaking.

One of the best ways to deal with the unfortunate connection between steroids and osteoporosis is to take preventative measures in patients on long-term steroid use. Typically, patients taking the equivalent of 5 milligrams of prednisone, a type of steroid, on a daily basis for three months should undergo prophylactic treatment for osteoporosis. They are often given a medication in the bisphosphonate class of drugs, which inhibits the breakdown of bones. These patients are typically also given calcium and vitamin D supplementation in order to help maintain healthy bones.

Unfortunately, in some patients the connection between steroids and osteoporosis comes to full fruition and patients suffer from the ill-effects of having weak bones. These patients are often identified on the basis of bone mineral density scans, or might receive the diagnosis only after having a fracture of one of their bones. Patients diagnosed with osteoporosis as a result of chronic steroid use are treated similarly to patients who developed osteoporosis for other reasons.

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