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Increasing Bone Health in Minutes a Day
CHORI Researchers Find New Therapy Enhances Bone Mass in Thalassemia Patients

December, 2012 – CHORI Associate Research Scientist Ellen Fung, PhD, CHORI Senior Scientist Elliott Vichinksy, MD, and their colleagues have shown for the first time in a population of patients with thalassemia that whole body vibration therapy can increase bone mass. The ground-breaking pilot study, recently published in the American Journal of Hematology, showed an improvement in bone mass over a six-month course of treatment in measurements of bone mineral content and areal bone mineral density, as well as in individual serum markers that are indicators of new bone formation.

“The results are very exciting, and strongly suggest that vibration therapy is a legitimate option for thalassemia patients, in whom an aggressive exercise program is not feasible,” says Dr. Fung.

“The results are very exciting, and strongly suggest that vibration therapy is a legitimate option for thalassemia patients, in whom an aggressive exercise program is not feasible.”



Patients with thalassemia, an inherited disorder that impacts how well the body makes blood, have a wide variety of complications, including an inability to build enough bone.

"Depending on which studies you look at, anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of adult patients with thalassemia have low bone mass, which places them at significant risk for fracture,," says Dr. Fung.

One of the best and fastest ways of increasing bone mass is through physical exercise. For many patients with thalassemia, however, the kind of exercise needed to increase bone mass isn't possible due to a host of other thalassemia-related complications, including heart problems. As a result, the only treatment option has been to use a family of drugs primarily used to treat osteoporosis in post-menopausal women. These drugs focus primarily on preventing additional bone loss, as opposed to increasing bone mass.

"Because thalassemia patients don't gain bone mass the way they should from a very young age, we wanted to see if we could find a non-invasive therapy that focused on the root problem the inability to gain bone mass," says Dr. Fung.
“We wanted to find a therapy that could be used in a population that typically aren’t  running marathons, so we asked the question, how can we enhance weight-bearing activity without stressing the heart?”
The answer: whole body vibration therapy. A little-known intervention first used by NASA to enhance bone mass in astronauts returning from space, in which bone loss due to lack of bearing weight has posed a significant challenge, whole vibration therapy consists of simply standing on a platform that makes a very mild, humming vibration.

Requiring only minutes a day, standing on the platform can be combined with television watching, talking on the telephone or reading to provide a very easily accessible therapy that has the potential to significantly increase bone mass.

In fact, the results of the study were overwhelmingly positive.
"We found a significant increase in whole body bone mineral content of over 2 percent, an increase of over one percent in areal bone mineral density, as well as a net increase in serum markers that indicate an increase in the formation of new bone," says Dr. Fung.

Recent and upcoming publications of studies using vibration therapy in larger study sizes but different populations, such as post-menopausal women or patients with the auto-immune disorder Crohn's disease, have interestingly shown no significant improvement in bone mass with the use of the vibration therapy. These studies, combined with the results from this latest study by Dr. Fung, suggest that the vibration therapy is uniquely tailored to thalassemia patients.

"Our patients don't have an overwhelming inflammatory process, which appears to be the common denominator in other patient populations in whom the therapy provided no improvement," says Dr. Fung. "Our patients also have much lower bone mass than nearly any other population in which this therapy has been tried, and many of them avoid aerobic weight-bearing activities."

As a result, thalassemia patients appear to be the perfect target population for this relatively simple and non-invasive therapy.

"Our results, though in a much smaller study compared to these large ones, were very conclusive," says Dr. Fung. "We saw a positive response in bone makers, in whole body bone mass, and a significant correlation between the amount of time participants stood on the platform and increased bone density in the hip. This link between adherence to the therapy and bone density increase provides more evidence that the vibration therapy was driving the response."

While multicenter studies that can capture a larger number of thalassemia patients are required to confirm the results, the initial findings suggest that whole body vibration therapy could be the key to increasing bone health in this vulnerable population.

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