Abstract

1. The clinical features, diagnosis and treatment of osteomalacia are discussed in relation to thirty-seven recently recognised cases. It is suggested that this disease is not uncommon in elderly women, among whom it is liable to be confused with senile osteoporosis. Osteomalacia may be distinguished by, firstly, the history, in which persistent skeletal pain of long duration and muscular weakness are typical of osteomalacia, but not of osteoporosis in which transient episodes of pain usually associated with a fracture are more characteristic. There is a high incidence of previous gastric surgery in the osteomalacia patients. Secondly, the physical examination shows skeletal tenderness in osteomalacia but this is not a particular feature of osteoporosis. A shuffling "penguin gait" suggests osteomalacia. Thirdly, the biochemistry shows a low plasma calcium and phosphate, and raised alkaline phosphatase levels commonly in osteomalacia but these are usually normal in osteoporosis. Reduced twenty-four-hour urinary calcium is characteristic of osteomalacia but not of osteoporosis. Fourthly, radiology will show diminished bone density which is common to both diseases, but if the changes are more marked in the peripheral bones than in the axial skeleton osteomalacia is suggested; the opposite is typical of osteoporosis. Skeletal deformity without fracture suggests osteomalacia, as do stress fractures and greenstick fractures in the elderly. Looser's zones are diagnostic of osteomalacia in which they are the most important radiological feature. Finally, histology will show the presence of excess osteoid tissue in undecalcified sections of bone in osteomalacia. This may be the earliest and most sensitive index of the disease and biopsy is indicated in all doubtful cases.

2. The etiology is discussed and it is suggested that a dietary deficiency of vitamin D, limited exposure to sunlight and mild degrees of malabsorption may all be important either alone or in combination. No satisfactory explanation is offered for the predominant female incidence.

3. A practical method of treatment is given and the dangers of uncontrolled administration of vitamin D indicated.

4. Treatment of osteomalacia is rapidly and consistently successful, and well justifies a thorough screening of all elderly patients presenting with weakness, skeletal pain, pathological fractures or with diminished radiographic density of bone.