Bisphosphonates to reduce bone fractures in stage 3B+ chronic kidney disease: a propensity score-matched cohort study

Health Technol Assess. 2021 Mar;25(17):1-106. doi: 10.3310/hta25170.


Background: Bisphosphonates are contraindicated in patients with stage 4+ chronic kidney disease. However, they are widely used to prevent fragility fractures in stage 3 chronic kidney disease, despite a lack of good-quality data on their effects.

Objectives: The aims of each work package were as follows. Work package 1: to study the relationship between bisphosphonate use and chronic kidney disease progression. Work package 2: to study the association between using bisphosphonates and fracture risk. Work package 3: to determine the risks of hypocalcaemia, hypophosphataemia, acute kidney injury and upper gastrointestinal events associated with using bisphosphonates. Work package 4: to investigate the association between using bisphosphonates and changes in bone mineral density over time.

Design: This was a new-user cohort study design with propensity score matching.

Setting and data sources: Data were obtained from UK NHS primary care (Clinical Practice Research Datalink GOLD database) and linked hospital inpatient records (Hospital Episode Statistics) for work packages 1-3 and from the Danish Odense University Hospital Databases for work package 4.

Participants: Patients registered in the data sources who had at least one measurement of estimated glomerular filtration rate of < 45 ml/minute/1.73 m2 were eligible. A second estimated glomerular filtration rate value of < 45 ml/minute/1.73 m2 within 1 year after the first was requested for work packages 1 and 3. Patients with no Hospital Episode Statistics linkage were excluded from work packages 1-3. Patients with < 1 year of run-in data before index estimated glomerular filtration rate and previous users of anti-osteoporosis medications were excluded from work packages 1-4.

Interventions/exposure: Bisphosphonate use, identified from primary care prescriptions (for work packages 1-3) or pharmacy dispensations (for work package 4), was the main exposure.

Main outcome measures: Work package 1: chronic kidney disease progression, defined as stage worsening or starting renal replacement. Work package 2: hip fracture. Work package 3: acute kidney injury, hypocalcaemia and hypophosphataemia identified from Hospital Episode Statistics, and gastrointestinal events identified from Clinical Practice Research Datalink or Hospital Episode Statistics. Work package 4: annualised femoral neck bone mineral density percentage change.

Results: Bisphosphonate use was associated with an excess risk of chronic kidney disease progression (subdistribution hazard ratio 1.12, 95% confidence interval 1.02 to 1.24) in work package 1, but did not increase the probability of other safety outcomes in work package 3. The results from work package 2 suggested that bisphosphonate use increased fracture risk (hazard ratio 1.25, 95% confidence interval 1.13 to 1.39) for hip fractures, but sensitivity analyses suggested that this was related to unresolved confounding. Conversely, work package 4 suggested that bisphosphonates improved bone mineral density, with an average 2.65% (95% confidence interval 1.32% to 3.99%) greater gain in femoral neck bone mineral density per year in bisphosphonate users than in matched non-users.

Limitations: Confounding by indication was a concern for the clinical effectiveness (i.e. work package 2) data. Bias analyses suggested that these findings were due to inappropriate adjustment for pre-treatment risk. work packages 3 and 4 were based on small numbers of events and participants, respectively.

Conclusions: Bisphosphonates were associated with a 12% excess risk of chronic kidney disease progression in participants with stage 3B+ chronic kidney disease. No other safety concerns were identified. Bisphosphonate therapy increased bone mineral density, but the research team failed to demonstrate antifracture effectiveness.

Future work: Randomised controlled trial data are needed to demonstrate antifracture efficacy in patients with stage 3B+ chronic kidney disease. More safety analyses are needed to characterise the renal toxicity of bisphosphonates in stage 3A chronic kidney disease, possibly using observational data.

Study registration: This study is registered as EUPAS10029.

Funding: This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment programme and will be published in full in Health Technology Assessment; Vol. 25, No. 17. See the NIHR Journals Library website for further project information. The project was also supported by the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre, Oxford.


Plain language summary

Rationale and aims: Bisphosphonates are used to prevent fractures in people with fragile bones. People with chronic kidney disease have a high risk of fracturing, but the safety and effectiveness of bisphosphonates in severe chronic kidney disease is unclear. The aim of this study was to assess the benefits (e.g. bone strength improvement and fracture prevention) and the risks of unwanted effects associated with bisphosphonates for people with moderate to severe chronic kidney disease.

Methods: Anonymised primary and secondary care electronic medical records data from the UK NHS were used, as well as a Danish equivalent that included bone density scans. Anyone in these databases with a measure of reduced kidney function that suggested moderate to severe chronic kidney disease was eligible, which was > 220,000 people from the UK. Over 20,000 of them used bisphosphonates. Bisphosphonate users were matched to non-users with similar age, sex and other characteristics.

Results: Bisphosphonate users had a 12% higher risk of their chronic kidney disease getting worse than non-users. Their risks of other side effects, such as acute kidney injuries and gastrointestinal problems, did not change. Bisphosphonate users had a 25% higher risk of fractures than non-users in the UK database, probably because the matching methods did not create similar-enough groups of users and non-users. However, it was found that bisphosphonate improved bone density in the Danish database. Bone density is a proxy for bone strength, so better bone density should mean fewer fractures.

Conclusions: These results suggest that bisphosphonate therapy may make moderate to severe chronic kidney disease worse. More studies are needed on how bisphosphonates affect milder chronic kidney disease. Bisphosphonates were associated with better bone strength, but it could not be demonstrated that they reduced fracture risk. More data are required, probably from a placebo-controlled trial, to determine whether or not bisphosphonates prevent fractures in people with moderate to severe chronic kidney disease and whether or not this is worth the risk of their chronic kidney disease worsening.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cohort Studies
  • Diphosphonates / adverse effects
  • Fractures, Bone* / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Propensity Score
  • Renal Insufficiency, Chronic* / complications
  • Renal Insufficiency, Chronic* / epidemiology


  • Diphosphonates