You are no doubt well aware that issues of bone loss are quite common among your elderly patients.
It can increase their risk for fractures, back pain, and a host of other musculoskeletal issues.
However, you may not know that a therapy that was originally devised to help astronauts recover from the debilitating physiological effects of long-duration space flight was the genesis for an exciting area of research to combat bone loss. What is the actual science behind vibration therapy, and how can it slow the progression of bone loss among your elderly patients?
How does bone loss occur?
Bone growth is a continual process of resorption and new bone formation.1 Most of this growth process occurs during childhood and adolescence. However, most people reach peak bone mass (sometimes called bone density) sometime in their 30s, when the bones are as solid and strong as they can become.
After that point, bone resorption will begin to exceed new bone growth, which is what starts the process of bone loss.1 This process generally accelerates at a faster pace in women than in men. Although bone loss is an inevitable part of aging, there are some factors that can offset the rate at which it progresses, including a diet high in calcium, not smoking, and exercise that specifically focuses on weight-bearing, such as lifting weights.
The connection between bone loss, microgravity, and vibration therapy
As NASA’s manned space missions began to extend up to a month or longer, starting in the early 1970s with SkyLab, it became necessary to study the effects of microgravity on the returning astronauts.2 Because the astronauts could not do any weight bearing in microgravity, they all showed signs of accelerated bone loss when they returned to Earth.
In order to help the astronauts regain some of the bone density they had lost, NASA scientists developed vibration plates for the astronauts to use 10 to 15 minutes per day.2 These plates were based on research in lab rats showing that high-frequency, low-magnitude forces did a better job of stimulating bone growth than low-frequency, high-magnitude plates.
What does the research say?
A 2012 article in the Journal of Musculoskeletal and Neuronal Interactions presented a study on the effects of vibration therapy on reducing bone loss and falls in a group of postmenopausal women.3,4 The 52 women were divided into two groups – one group that performed four minutes of whole-body vibration exercise two days a week, and a control group that did not do any vibration exercises.
At the end of six months, the patients who underwent the whole-body vibration exercises showed significant improvement in terms of flexibility, body balance and walking speed, compared to the control group.3,4 The researchers concluded that the vibration exercise was safe and beneficial for improving physical function in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis.
While it is highly unlikely that any of your elderly patients will be headed into outer space anytime in the near future, they do owe a debt of gratitude to the astronauts who have ventured out into our solar system for being the spark of inspiration for the development of vibration therapy. Your patients may be able to benefit from that space-age technology in their fight against bone loss.
- Hunter DJ, Sambrook PN. (2000). Bone loss: Epidemiology of bone loss. Arthritis Research, 2(6), 441–445.
- Space life sciences research highlights: A little shake up for healthy bones. NASA Office of Biological and Physical Research. Accessed June 26, 2017.
- Iwamoto J, Sato Y, Takeda T, Matsumoto H. (2012). Whole body vibration exercise improves body balance and walking velocity in postmenopausal osteoporotic women treated with alendronate: Galileo and Alendronate Intervention Trail (GAIT). Journal of Musculoskeletal and Neuronal Interactions 12(3), 136–143.
- Ma C, Liu A, Sun M, et al. (2016). Effect of whole-body vibration on reduction of bone loss and fall prevention in postmenopausal women: A meta-analysis and systematic review. Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery and Research, 11, 24.