Jaw problems (osteonecrosis) and cancer treatment

If your cancer is affecting your bones, or at risk of spreading to your bones, you might have treatment for this. These treatments can occasionally cause osteonecrosis of the jaw. Treatments include:

  • bisphosphonates (drugs that help prevent or slow down bone thinning)
  • denosumab (a type of targeted therapy called a monoclonal antibody)

More rarely other treatments can cause osteonecrosis of the jaw. These are treatments that interfere with cancer’s ability to develop a blood supply. Two examples are bevacizumab (Avastin) and sunitinib.

Radiotherapy to the jaw area can also cause osteonecrosis of the jaw and is called osteoradionecrosis. This page is about osteonecrosis caused by cancer drugs.

What is osteonecrosis?

Osteo means bone and necrosis means cell or tissue death. So, osteonecrosis (pronounced oss-tee-oh-neh-kro-sis) means death of bone tissue. Bone can die in any part of the body if its blood supply is cut off and the cells can’t get oxygen or food.

Osteonecrosis of the jaw is an uncommon condition. The exact causes are not known. Possible factors that might increase the risk during bisphosphonate or denosumab treatment include:

  • chemotherapy treatment
  • steroid therapy
  • an underlying cancer
  • diabetes
  • a history of gum disease or mouth infections
  • low levels of red blood cells (anaemia)
  • dental surgery such as pulled teeth (extractions)

Only a very small number of people who take bisphosphonates or denosumab will get osteonecrosis of the jaw.

The risk varies depending on the type of cancer you have. Also on the length of time you take them and whether you have them as tablets or into a vein. The risk of osteonecrosis of the jaw is even lower with tablet therapy.

People with myeloma seem to have a slightly higher risk of developing osteonecrosis of the jaw. It's important to remember that the risk is still very low.

Symptoms of osteonecrosis

The main symptoms of osteonecrosis of the jaw include:

  • pain, swelling, or gum infections
  • development of exposed bone in the mouth along either the top or bottom jaws
  • loosening of teeth
  • poor healing of the gums especially after dental work
  • numbness or a feeling of heaviness in the jaw

These symptoms might be signs of other less serious conditions. But if you have any of them or other dental symptoms, tell both your cancer doctor and your dentist straight away.

Risk factors

The most important factor affecting the risk is the number of treatments you have. People having monthly treatments to help control symptoms of secondary bone cancer are at the most risk, but remember the risk is still low. 

Studies also suggest that nearly all of the people affected with osteonecrosis either wore dentures or had dental treatment in the previous year. This is why researchers think dental treatment is a risk factor. 

To lower the risk, you should have a dental examination and any necessary treatment before you start this type of treatment if you:

  • have cancer
  • are having chemotherapy
  • are taking steroids
  • have unhealthy teeth and gums

Dental treatment

You should avoid any invasive dental treatment while having this treatment. Such as extraction or insertion of dental implants. You can have fillings and routine cleaning. 

Talk to your specialist if you need dental treatment. They will tell you whether you should stop your bisphosphonates beforehand. Talk to your cancer specialist before stopping your bisphosphonate or denosumab treatment.

Managing osteonecrosis of the jaw

Your team will help you manage osteonecrosis of the jaw. What treatment you are likely to have depends on factors including:

  • your type of cancer
  • what medication you are taking
  • how big the area of osteonecrosis is
  • how well you are generally

Many people find that good mouth care, antibiotics and mouthwashes help to manage osteonecrosis.

Some people have surgery to treat the condition. This is less common.

Continuing with bisphosphonate or denosumab treatment

Bisphosphonates and denosumab are a very important part of treatment for people with some types of cancer. They can help lower the risk of bone problems such as fractures. They can also lower the risk of developing a secondary bone cancer for some people. 

Your specialist usually recommends you continue with the bisphosphonate, or other treatment, while managing your jaw problems.

Important information about jaw problems and bisphosphonate or denosumab treatment

Dental problems

Tell your doctor and dentist about any problems with your mouth. Always tell your dentist that you are taking bisphosphonate or other treatments that can cause osteonecrosis. 

Dental check ups

Have a dental check up and any treatment before you start taking these drugs. Have regular dental check ups.

You should avoid having any major surgical procedures to your mouth or jaw areas if possible. You will not be able to have dental implants.

If you need major dental treatment such as extractions your doctor might consider stopping your bisphosphonates for a few weeks before treatment. Your team will be cautious about restarting your bisphosphonate treatment. It will be when the site of the extraction has fully healed. 

Mouth infections

If you have any mouth infections you might need to take a course of antibiotics, and to use mouthwashes. 

For more severe infections you might need antibiotics into your bloodstream (intravenously).


Clean your teeth regularly and carefully. 

Bisphosphonates with other treatments

Jaw problems are more likely in people who:

  • have had bisphosphonates into the bloodstream for several years
  • and have had treatment with chemotherapy and steroids at the same time
  • Bone health in cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines
    R Coleman and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2020. Volume 31, Issue 12, Pages 1650-1663

  • Medication-related osteonecrosis of the jaw in patients with cancer
    UpToDate (accessed June 2023)

  • Association of Osteonecrosis of the Jaw With Zoledronic Acid Treatment for Bone Metastases in Patients With Cancer
    C H. Van Poznak and others 
    JAMA Oncology, 2021. Volume 7, Issue 2, Pages 246-254 

  • Why worry about bisphosphonate related osteonecrosis of the jaw? A guide to diagnosis, initial management, and referral of patients
    KFB Payne and others
    British Journal of General Practice, 2017. Volume 67

  • Long-term use of denosumab and its association with skeletal-related events and osteonecrosis of the jaw
    Pei-An Fu and others
    Nature, 2023

  • Diagnosis and Management of Osteonecrosis of the Jaw: A Systematic Review and International Consensus
    AA Khan and others
    Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 2014. Volume 30, Issue 1

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

Last reviewed: 
13 Jun 2023
Next review due: 
13 Jun 2026

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