Drugs Used to Treat Osteoporosis: The Critical Need for a Uniform Nomenclature Based on Their Action on Bone Remodeling


  • B Lawrence Riggs MD,

    Corresponding author
    1. Endocrine Research Unit, Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Department of Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester Minnesota, USA
    • Mayo Clinic, Endocrine Research Unit, 200 First Street SW, 5-194 Joseph, Rochester, MN 55905, USA
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  • A Michael Parfitt

    1. Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Center for Osteoporosis and Metabolic Bone Diseases, Department of Internal Medicine, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA
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  • The authors have no conflict of interest.


There continues to be uncertainty about the classification of available drugs for treating osteoporosis. We find that grouping them into anti-catabolic and anabolic classes based on the mechanisms of their action on bone remodeling and fracture reduction removes ambiguities and provides a relatively straightforward classification.

The recent introduction of teriparatide into clinical practice initiated the era of anabolic therapy for osteoporosis, but it is still unclear how to define an anabolic drug. All drugs that increase bone mass do so by affecting bone remodeling. When their mechanisms of action on bone remodeling and on fracture reduction are considered, we find that anti-osteoporotic drugs fall naturally into either anti-catabolic or anabolic classes. Anti-catabolic drugs increase bone strength and reduce fractures mainly by decreasing the number of bone multicellular units (BMUs). This reduces perforative resorption and preserves skeletal microarchitecture (by preventing further structural damage to trabecular bone and increased porosity in cortical bone induced by high bone remodeling). Reduction in bone remodeling by anti-catabolic drugs may increase bone mass moderately during the interval in which previously initiated BMUs are completing mineralization. Some anti-catabolic drugs may also enhance the formation phase of the remodeling cycle, but their major action is to reduce overall bone turnover (i.e., the number of BMUs in bone). In contrast, anabolic drugs increase bone strength and reduce fractures by substantially increasing bone mass as a result of an overall increase in the number of BMUs combined with a positive BMU balance (the magnitude of the formation phase is greater than that of the resorption phase). Some anabolic drugs also induce renewed modeling, increase periosteal apposition and repair of trabecular microstructure. We hope that this classification will serve as a starting point for continued discussion on the important issue of nomenclature.