Background and methods: Osteoporosis is a recognized complication of corticosteroid therapy. Whether it can be prevented is not known. We conducted a 12-month, randomized, placebo-controlled study of intermittent etidronate (400 mg per day for 14 days) followed by calcium (500 mg per day for 76 days), given for four cycles, in 141 men and women (age, 19 to 87 years) who had recently begun high-dose corticosteroid therapy. The primary outcome measure was the difference in the change in the bone density of the lumbar spine between the groups from base line to week 52. Secondary measures included changes in the bone density of the femoral neck, trochanter, and radius and the rate of new vertebral fractures.
Results: The mean (+/-SE) bone density of the lumbar spine and trochanter in the etidronate group increased 0.61 +/- 0.54 and 1.46 +/- 0.67 percent, respectively, as compared with decreases of 3.23 +/- 0.60 and 2.74 +/- 0.66 percent, respectively, in the placebo group. The mean differences between the groups after one year were 3.72 +/- 0.88 percentage points for the lumbar spine (P = 0.02) and 4.14 +/- 0.94 percentage points for the trochanter (P = 0.02). The changes in the femoral neck and the radius were not significantly different between the groups. There was an 85 percent reduction in the proportion of postmenopausal woman with new vertebral fractures in the etidronate group as compared with the placebo group (1 of 31 patients vs. 7 of 32 patients, P = 0.05), and the etidronate-treated postmenopausal women also had significantly fewer vertebral fractures per patient (P = 0.04).
Conclusions: Intermittent etidronate therapy prevents the loss of vertebral and trochanteric bone in corticosteroid-treated patients.