Q: My orthopedist prescribed a bone growth stimulator for my foot fracture. I wear it for half an hour a day. Does it really do something?
A: It may help, but it’s hard to know for sure. Such devices are typically prescribed when a fractured bone doesn’t heal properly. That occurs with about five to 10 percent of fractures. They’re also used sometimes for new fractures.
Bone growth (osteogenesis) stimulators employ either pulsed electromagnetic or pulsed low-intensity ultrasonic energy. They can be strapped to an arm, leg or other body part—over a cast or brace, if there is one—and used daily at home. You don’t feel the energy.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the devices for the treatment of “nonunions”—damaged bones that haven’t healed over time. This can be the result of infection, poor blood supply or inadequate immobilization during the healing process. People with diabetes or osteoporosis, smokers and alcoholics are at elevated risk for poor bone healing. Only the ultrasound devices are approved for new fractures.
Many insurance companies pay for the use of such devices, usually for nonunions, if certain criteria are met (concerning type of fracture, time frame, symptoms and more).
It’s not clear exactly how electromagnetic or ultrasonic energy may help, but lab research has found it can affect a variety of factors involved in bone growth. Studies on the devices in humans generally support their usefulness, but have been small and short and vary in design. A 2009 review in BMJ found the results of well-designed studies to be “promising” overall but inconsistent. Similarly, a 2011 review by the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that while the evidence suggests a benefit, it is insufficient to determine the true effectiveness and best uses of the devices.
Clearly, more and better research is needed. Still, since this therapy is noninvasive and easy to use, has no adverse effects and can be used as an adjunct to standard treatment, it’s worth trying if your doctor prescribes it and insurance will cover it.