Purpose: To determine the effect of oral contraceptives (OC) on bone mass and stress fracture incidence in young female distance runners.
Methods: One hundred fifty competitive female runners ages 18-26 yr were randomly assigned to OC (30 microg of ethinyl estradiol and 0.3 mg of norgestrel) or control (no intervention) for 2 yr. Bone mineral density (BMD) and content (BMC) were measured yearly by dual x-ray absorptiometry. Stress fractures were confirmed by x-ray, magnetic resonance imaging, or bone scan.
Results: Randomization to OC was unrelated to changes in BMD or BMC in oligo/amenorrheic (N=50) or eumenorrheic runners (N=100). However, treatment-received analyses (which considered actual OC use) showed that oligo/amenorrheic runners who used OC gained about 1% per year in spine BMD (P<0.005) and whole-body BMC (P<0.005), amounts similar to those for runners who regained periods spontaneously and significantly greater than those for runners who remained oligo/amenorrheic (P<0.05). Dietary calcium intake and weight gain independently predicted bone mass gains in oligo/amenorrheic runners. Randomization to OC was not significantly related to stress fracture incidence, but the direction of the effect was protective in both menstrual groups (hazard ratio [95% CI]: 0.57 [0.18, 1.83]), and the effect became stronger in treatment-received analyses. The trial's statistical power was reduced by higher-than-anticipated noncompliance.
Conclusion: OC may reduce the risk for stress fractures in female runners, but our data are inconclusive. Oligo/amenorrheic athletes with low bone mass should be advised to increase dietary calcium and take steps to resume normal menses, including weight gain; they may benefit from OC, but the evidence is inconclusive.