Papers And Originals

Clinical Significance and Pathogenesis of Osteoporosis

Br Med J 1971; 1 doi: (Published 13 March 1971) Cite this as: Br Med J 1971;1:571
  1. B. E. C. Nordin


    The development of osteoporosis with advancing age in man is a widespread if not a universal phenomenon. The average loss between youth and old age amounts to about 15% of the skeleton but involves a much larger proportion of trabecular than of cortical bone.

    The principal clinical manifestation of osteoporosis is fracture, and three osteoporotic fracture syndromes can be defined: the lower forearm fracture, which predominantly affects women between the ages of 50 and 65; the fracture of the proximal femur, which affects both sexes over the age of 70; and the relatively rare vertebral crush fracture syndrome, which may present at any age but is most common in elderly women.

    The lower forearm fracture rate is inversely related to the mean normal lower forearm x-ray “density” of the wrist, which falls by about 30% in the 15 years following the menopause. This process, which is associated with corresponding trabecular bone loss elsewhere in the skeleton, is associated with a corresponding rise in the fasting urinary calcium excretion. Some degree of negative calcium balance, and consequent bone resorption, probably occurs in everyone during the later part of the night because calcium absorption is completed within about three to five hours of a meal. In postmenopausal women, however, the sensitivity of the bone to parathyroid hormone appears to be increased, and their nocturnal negative calcium balance therefore comes to exceed the positive balance which can be achieved during the waking hours.

    Femoral neck fractures in old people reflect the further progression of osteoporosis with advancing age since the fracture rate is inversely correlated with the mean thickness of the metacarpal cortex in the normal population. This progressive osteoporosis is associated with and could well result from a steady decline in calcium absorption which is at least partially attributable to vitamin-D deficiency and reversible on vitamin-D treatment.

    The vertebral crush fracture syndrome represents a severe degree of spinal osteoporosis which may be associated with relatively normal peripheral bones. It probably results from an accelerated negative calcium balance which mobilizes trabecular bone preferentially. Some of the factors which may contribute to this accelerated negative balance have been identified and include a reduced rate of bone turnover, impaired calcium absorption, and low oestrogen activity as judged by vaginal smears, but there may well be others as yet unidentified.


    • * The prize-winning entry for the 1970 International Health Foundation Award.