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Women's Health: Vibrations may be good for bone health

Gently shaking platform could offer an alternative to drug treatment for osteoporosis

Canadian and American researchers are embarking on a pair of major studies to see whether older people with low bone density can vibrate their way to a healthier skeleton.

The device under scrutiny is a platform that resembles a bathroom scale but contains sophisticated electronics that adjust to a user’s body weight and generate a gentle vertical vibration that is believed to stimulate bone growth. Users stand on the platform for 10 to 20 minutes a day.

Dr. Angela Cheung, director of the osteoporosis program for the University Health Network and Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, is leading the Canadian trial. She says her group is always on the lookout for innovative approaches to preventing or treating osteoporosis, and this seemed to fit the bill. “We looked at the data, thought it was promising, but still needed some research,” she says. “We’re hoping that (the benefit to bone) will be similar to calcium and vitamin D supplementation.”

Cheung notes chronic exposure to strong vibrations — such as those delivered to a construction worker’s hands via a jackhammer — are considered harmful, but the platform, known as the Juvent 1000, generates very low-magnitude oscillations, and there are already several clinical trials suggesting the device is safe and is beneficial for bone.

The Toronto study is to involve 160 postmenopausal women who are not taking osteoporosis medication or hormone replacement therapy. Participants will be randomly assigned to stand on the vibrating platform for 20 minutes a day, at either of two different frequencies, or to not use the device. Juvent is loaning platforms to the researchers, but funding for the study comes from Physicians’ Services Incorporated, an independent granting agency for Ontario-based health research. A special scanner will allow researchers to look at bone composition as well as density.

The U.S. study is being headed by Dr. Douglas Kiel, director of medical research at Hebrew SeniorLife and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. The researchers are hoping to recruit 200 men and women older than age 65 from independent living facilities in the Boston area. “This is not some kind of pie-in-the-sky thing. It built from a very strong foundation of basic science,” Kiel says. “But we need a lot more information because the studies have been rather small, in limited populations.”

Neither trial will reveal whether the device reduces the risk of fractures due to brittle bones, but Cheung says there is no point in funding large-scale fracture studies until a bone density benefit is confirmed. Until then, she said, “it’s a bit early to be recommending it for use.”

In the meantime, however, the Juvent 1000 has already been licensed as a medical device by Health Canada and is available for $3,000 from Canadian distributor OsTek Orthopaedics of Burlington, Ont.