Do Calcium Supplements Prevent Bone Fractures? – Part1

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Health Current Events, Supplements and Health, Vitamins and Health

Why The Recent Headlines May Be Misleading

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney


osteoporosisDoes calcium help prevent bone fractures?  Osteoporosis is a debilitating and potentially deadly disease associated with aging. It affects 54 million Americans. It can cause debilitating back pain and bone fractures. 50% of women and 25% of men over 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis. Hip fractures in the elderly due to osteoporosis are often a death sentence.

For that reason, the RDA for calcium has been set at 1,000 to 1,200 mg/day to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, and calcium supplements are often recommended to reach that target.However, recent headlines are proclaiming that calcium supplements do not actually prevent bone fractures and might increase your risk of a heart attack. Are the RDA recommendations wrong? Should you throw out your calcium supplements?

In this article I will review the article behind the study and help you put it into perspective. After all, you don’t really want to know whether calcium supplementation is beneficial for the average adult. You want to know whether it will be beneficial for you.

Let me start by putting the heart attack myth to rest. I have covered this in detail in a previous “Health Tips From The Professor” article, Calcium Supplements Increase Heart Attack Risk . If you don’t want to go to the trouble of reading my previous article, the short version is that:

  • Most of the studies suggesting an increased risk of heart attacks are flawed.
  • A very large study (74,000 women followed for 24 years) has shown fairly convincingly that calcium supplements do not increase heart attack risk. If anything, they decrease heart attack risk.

Unfortunately, like most other nutrition myths, this one is still being repeated – even after it has been refuted by subsequent studies.

Bone Metabolism and Osteoporosis

bone metabolism osteoporosisBefore you can truly understand osteoporosis and how to prevent it, you need to know a bit about bone metabolism. We tend to think of our bones as solid and unchanging, much like the steel girders in an office building. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our bones are dynamic organs that are in a constant change throughout our lives.

Cells called osteoclasts and osteoblasts constantly break down old bone (a process called resorption) and replace it with new bone (a process called accretion). Without this constant renewal process our bones would quickly become old and brittle (I’ll discuss more about this next week when I talk about the side effects of drugs commonly used to increase bone density).

When we are young the bone building process exceeds bone resorption and our bones grow in size and in density. During most of our adult years, bone resorption and accretion are in balance so our bone density stays constant. However, as we age bone the bone building process (accretion) slows down and we start to lose bone density. Eventually our bones look like Swiss cheese and break very easily. This is called osteoporosis.

We should also think of our bones as calcium reservoirs.  We need calcium in our bloodstream 24 hours a day for our muscles, brain, and nerves to function properly, but we only get calcium in our diet at discrete intervals. Consequently, when we eat our body tries to store as much calcium as possible in our bones. Between meals, we break down bone material so that we can release the calcium into our bloodstream that our muscle, brain & nerves need to function.

If we lead a “bone healthy” lifestyle, all of this works perfectly. We build strong bones during our growing years, maintain healthy bones during our adult years, and only lose bone density slowly as we age – maybe never experiencing osteoporosis. We always accumulate enough calcium in our bones during meals to provide for the rest of our body between meals.

What is a “bone healthy” lifestyle, you might ask. Because calcium is a major component of bone, the medical and nutrition communities have long focused on calcium as a “magic bullet” that can assure bone health. Once the importance of vitamin D was understood, it was added to the equation. For years we have been told that if we just get enough calcium and vitamin D in our diets, we would build strong bones when we were young, maintain bone density most of our adult years, and lose bone density as slowly as possible as we age.It is this paradigm that the current study challenges.

Do Calcium Supplements Prevent Bone Fractures?

prevent bone fracturesLet’s start by looking at the study behind the headlines (Tai et al, British Medical Journal, BMJ/2015; 351:h4183 doi: 10.1136/bmj.h4183). This was a meta-analysis that included 15 studies (1533 participants) looking at dietary sources of calcium and 51 studies (12,257 participants) looking at calcium supplementation in women.

The results of the meta-analysis were thought provoking, but do not exactly support the headlines you have been reading. For example:

The headlines say “Calcium Supplements Do Not Prevent Broken Bones”.

  • This study did not actually look at calcium supplementation and the risk of bone fractures. That was a previous study (Boland et al, BMJ 2015, 351:h4580) by the same authors.
  • This study showed that calcium supplementation increased bone density by 0.7-1.8%, which the authors concluded was sufficient to reduce fracture risk by about 5-10%. That’s a disappointingly small effect, but it is not zero – as the headlines suggested.

The headlines say “It’s better to get your calcium from food than from supplements”.

  • This study showed that it did not matter whether the calcium came from food or from supplements. The increase in bone density was identical.

Garbage-In, Garbage-Out

garbageMeta-analyses such as this one can be very strong, but they can also suffer from the “garbage-in, garbage-out” phenomenon. In short, if most of the studies that went into the meta-analysis were poorly designed, the conclusions of the meta-analysis will be unreliable.

The problem is that many of the individual studies were conducted 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago when our knowledge of bone metabolism was incomplete.

  • Thirty or 40 years ago it was “state of the art” to just use a calcium supplement. Then we learned that adequate vitamin D was essential for efficient calcium utilization.
  • Most of the studies included in this meta-analysis looked at calcium supplementation without vitamin D. Only 13 of the studies (25%) included vitamin D.
  • Ten or 20 years ago it was “state of the art” to just use a calcium supplement with vitamin D. Then we learned that the blood level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (the active form of vitamin D in the bloodstream) did not necessarily reflect vitamin D intake from the diet. In today’s world a study in which the 25-hydroxy vitamin D level is not measured should be considered sub-standard.
  • Only 18 (35%) of the studies measured baseline 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels.
  • If dietary calcium intake at baseline is already adequate, it is illogical to expect additional calcium to significantly increase bone density.
  • The baseline calcium intake was <800 mg/day (clearly inadequate) in only 26 (51%) of the studies. Baseline calcium intake was either not determined in the other studies or was already in the adequate range prior to supplementation.
  • In the future, we will probably want to include exercise as a component in the study (more about that next week). None of the studies included exercise as a component

In short, by today’s standards many, if not most, of the studies included in the meta-analysis had an inadequate design.

If I had designed the meta-analysis, I would have been a lot more restrictive in the studies I included.

  • I would have started by including only studies in which the baseline intake of calcium was <800 mg/day. If you want to critically evaluate whether calcium supplementation has a beneficial effect, you need to start with people who have an inadequate dietary intake of calcium. If their diets are already calcium sufficient, supplementation is unlikely to have any benefit.
  • At the very least I would only include studies that used calcium supplements containing 400-800 IU of vitamin D as well. In fact, based on the latest data, I would make sure that the calcium supplement I used also contained adequate levels of magnesium, vitamin K, zinc, copper and manganese. All of those have been shown to be important for bone formation and we cannot assume they are present at sufficient levels in their diet (more about that next week).
  • I would only include studies that measured blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D at baseline and following supplementation with vitamin D so that we knew that the 25-hydroxy vitamin D level was sufficient to support optimal calcium utilization.
  • Finally, I would only include studies that specifically measured the effect of exercise on calcium utilization or included exercise as an integral part of their study.

The number of studies included in the meta-analysis would be much less, but they would all be high quality studies.

Finally, the authors also noted that a number of studies in the supplement group showed significantly greater (2.5 – 5.0%) increase in bone density. They dismissed them as outliers. I would have preferred a closer look at those studies to see if there was anything about the population group or study design that might explain the greater bone density increase in those studies.

Apples and Oranges

apples orangesBecause the authors included a wide variety of clinical studies, they were able to state that “Increases in bone mineral density were similar in trials of calcium monotherapy [calcium by itself] versus co-administered calcium and vitamin D…and in trials where baseline dietary calcium intake was <800 [clearly insufficient] versus >800 [probably sufficient] mg/day.” This could be considered a strength of their meta-analysis, but they are only valid comparisons if other important features of the studies being compared were uniform – i.e. they were comparing apples to apples.

But what if they were comparing apples and oranges?

For example, we know that vitamin D is required for efficient calcium utilization. When the authors compared studies having a baseline calcium intake of <800 mg/day with studies having a baseline calcium intake of >800 mg/day, they did not even check to see whether use of vitamin D was evenly distributed between the two groups. If most of the studies with a baseline calcium intake of <800 mg/day did not include vitamin D with their calcium supplements, the authors would be comparing apples and oranges. The comparison would be invalid.

Similarly, we also know that if calcium intake at baseline is adequate, adding more calcium is unlikely to increase bone density significantly. When the authors compared studies with and without vitamin D, they did not even check to see whether baseline calcium intake was evenly distributed between the two groups. If the participants in most of the studies utilizing supplements providing both calcium and vitamin D were already consuming sufficient calcium at baseline, they would be comparing apples to oranges. Again, the comparison would be invalid.

The authors of the meta-analysis simply did not provide the detail needed to determine whether their comparisons were apples to apples or apples to oranges. Thus, what seemed to be a strength of their study is actually a major weakness.


The Bottom Line


  • A recent study has reported that the RDA recommendation of 1,000 – 1,200 mg/day of calcium for people over 50 provides only a minimal increase in bone density (0.7-1.8%) over the first year or two. This translates into a very small (5-10%) decrease in risk of bone fractures. It did not matter whether the calcium came from dietary sources or from supplementation. The authors concluded that adding extra calcium to the diet, whether from food or supplements, was not a very efficient way to increase bone density and prevent fractures.
  • This study suffers from some serious flaws. It is a meta-analysis of previous clinical trials looking at the effects of calcium on bone density. Meta-analyses can be very strong studies because they average the effects of many individual studies. However, meta-analyses can also suffer from the “garbage-in, garbage-out” phenomenon. Simply put, the quality of the meta-analysis is only as good as the studies that go into it. In this case the meta-analysis included many clinical studies that were done 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years ago. Based on what we now know about bone metabolism, the design of many of those early studies was clearly inadequate (details are given in the article).


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (1)

  • Robert D. Munson


    Thank you for pointing out why the results of poorly run research results should not be considered valid, and the difference between well designed and poorly designed research studies. I appreciate you “Health Tips”!!!!


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Recent Videos From Dr. Steve Chaney


Latest Article

Groin Pain Relief

Posted April 16, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

What Is The Pectineus Muscle And Why Is It Important?

Author: Julie Donnelly, LMT –The Pain Relief Expert

Editor: Dr. Steve Chaney


Spring Is In The Air

spring floridaI remember as a child we sang “Though April showers may come your way…they bring the flowers that bloom in May…”

Of course, here in Florida we are blessed with flowers all year, but there’s still a lovely feeling that happens in Spring.  It’s still cool enough most days to go out running, and the humidity is still low.  Traffic will soon be easing up as our friends from the north start their trek back home, and daylight savings time is giving us more time to get to the beach for sunset.  Lovely!

Fun Facts About Spring….

  • The earliest known use of the term “spring cleaning” was in 1857
  • The word “spring” has been used for the season since the 16th century
  • The first day of spring is called the vernal equinox
  • On the first day of spring, the sunrise and sunset are about 12 hours apart everywhere on earth
  • Spring fever isn’t just a saying. Experts say the body changes due to the temperature and can cause an upset in your health.
  • The actual start of spring varies from March 19th to the 21st, but it is commonly celebrated on the 21st.

Do you like to garden?  Now is the perfect time to get your gardens planted so you’ll have home grown veggies for the entire summer.  For me, it’s also a great time to do some spring cleaning and get the house in order before the summer closes all the windows and the air conditioning becomes our indoor relief.

But these activities can also cause a strain on muscles, so don’t forget to take care of yourself. If you put too much strain on muscles you haven’t used all winter, you can develop problems and need groin pain relief.


A Tiny Muscle Can Cause Groin Pain

groin pain relief pectineusLately I’ve had several clients come in because of groin pain that has their medical practitioners stumped.  Their symptoms are varied, but most complain that it feels like they hit their pubic bone with a rubber mallet.  Ouch!

One client loves to ride her horse, but the pain had prevented that for several weeks. Another was considering selling the motorcycle that she and her husband love because she just can’t sit on it anymore.

Several years ago, I had a male client tell me that he had this same pain and he was told it could be his prostrate causing the issue.  Fortunately, that wasn’t he problem at all.

The muscle that caused all these problems, and a lot more, is the Pectineus.

The Pectineus muscle originates on your pubic bone and inserts into the very top of your inner thigh bone (femur).

You can see the Pectineus and surrounding muscles more clearly by going to

Most muscles have more than one function, and this is true for the Pectineus.  The function we’ll look at today is called adduction.  It brings your leg in toward midline.  If you think of a soccer player kicking the ball with the inside of his ankle, it was the Pectineus that helped draw his leg in so he could do the shot.

Each of my clients had pain while trying to bring their leg out so they could sit on their horse, or on their motorcycle.  The tight muscle was pulling on their pubic bone and causing a severe strain.

This muscle is easier to have someone else treat it for you because of its location but give it a try and see if you can locate & treat it yourself.


Groin Pain Relief

groin pain relief treatmentThe picture to the left is showing an athlete self-treating her adductors.  These muscles, and the Pectineus muscle, all originate at the same point on the pubic bone.  The picture is showing her massaging the middle of the adductors.

To reach the Pectineus, move the ball all the way up to the crease in your leg.  You can do the treatment with a ball, but because of the size of the muscle and its location, it’s easier to do it with your fingertips.

Sit as this athlete is sitting, and even bring your opposite leg up so your foot is flat on the floor.  For example, in this picture, the athlete would bring her right leg up so her right foot is on the floor, and then lean a bit further onto her left hip.  That opens up the area so she can reach a bit easier into the muscle while using her fingertips.

Press into the muscle, being careful to feel for a pulse, and moving if you feel one.  If the Pectineus is in spasm, you’ll know it immediately when you press on it.  If it’s not in spasm, you won’t be able to find it at all.

Remember to stay within your pain tolerance level, this isn’t a “no pain, no gain” situation.  Never go deeper than what feels tender, but not so much that you want to faint. Hold the pressure for 15 seconds. Then let up on the pressure, but keep your fingers in the same place.

Repeat this movement several times. Each time it will hurt less, and eventually it won’t hurt at all.  That’s when the muscle has completely released, and you will have relief from the pain.

It’s as simple as that!

Why stay in pain when it’s so easy to find the muscular source of the problem and eliminate it?

calf cramps remedy bookTreat Yourself to Pain-Free Living ( It is filled with over 100 pictures and descriptions proven to show you how to find and self-treat muscle spasms from head to foot!

Join the 1000’s of people worldwide who have discovered that tight muscles were the true source of pains they thought were from arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other serious conditions.  You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain by releasing tight muscles.

Treat Yourself to Pain-Free Living is your step-by-step guide to pain relief!


Wishing you well,


Julie Donnelly


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.


julie donnellyAbout The Author

Julie Donnelly is a Deep Muscle Massage Therapist with 20 years of experience specializing in the treatment of chronic joint pain and sports injuries. She has worked extensively with elite athletes and patients who have been unsuccessful at finding relief through the more conventional therapies.

She has been widely published, both on – and off – line, in magazines, newsletters, and newspapers around the country. She is also often chosen to speak at national conventions, medical schools, and health facilities nationwide.