A new study shows that binge drinking can have a serious impact on bone health, thwarting the ability to heal from fractures. Since the 1980s, research has consistently shown a link between alcohol and decreased bone health. "Physicians have known for a long time that individuals that drink excessively have decreased bone mass (the amount of mineral in bone), increased propensities to get bone fractures, and slower bone fracture repair," said study researcher John Callaci, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Loyola University Chicago. "But most of the previous work focused on chronic drinkers and alcoholics."

For the last decade, Callaci and his colleagues have instead been interested in the effects of binge drinking on bone health. They've previously found that binge drinking decreases bone mineral density and bone strength, and impairs the later stages of bone healing after a fracture. For their current study, which they presented recently at the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research 2013 Annual Meeting, the team tested how binge drinking affects the early stages of bone repair.

The scientists gave one group of mice a dose of alcohol equal to three times the legal limit allowable for driving, and another group, equal amounts of saline (salt water). About an hour later, they surgically fractured the mice's bones and watched what happened. Compared with the saline-dosed mice, the binge-drinking mice had much smaller fracture calluses – the bony healing tissue that forms around fractures. The main reason for this impaired healing was that the alcohol decreased the levels of osteopontin, a protein that helps recruit immature stem cells, which then mature into new bone cells at the fracture site.

The results may have important implications for how physicians treat their patients, if future human trials corroborate the findings. Doctors already know they need to keep a close watch on alcoholic patients with bone fractures, but the new work suggests frequent binge drinkers may also require special attention. Down the line, the study may also lead to better treatments for alcohol-related bone injuries. "If the body isn't making enough of these proteins, then maybe there's a way to locally increase those levels," Callaci said. "The hope is that, as an adjunct to surgery, stem cell therapy could someday help improve bone healing."