Renal bone disease: a new conceptual framework for the interpretation of bone histomorphometry

Curr Opin Nephrol Hypertens. 2003 Jul;12(4):387-403. doi: 10.1097/00041552-200307000-00007.


My purpose in this article is to restore the histologic appraisal of renal bone disease to the mainstream of bone and mineral metabolism from which it has been separated for many years. Historically, both the two major components were found in varying degrees in most patients, although one or other of them often predominated. For more than 15 years bone biopsy has been used almost exclusively to classify individual patients into hyperparathyroid, osteomalacic, mixed and adynamic categories according to rigid non-overlapping criteria, and remarkably few histologic data have been reported. All metabolic bone diseases result from disordered bone remodeling, the physiologic mechanism for replacing bone that has become too old to carry out its mechanical or metabolic functions. Bone remodeling is not directly concerned with the regulation of plasma calcium, which reflects the level of equilibration at quiescent bone surfaces between systemic and bone extracellular fluid set by parathyroid hormone. The separation of remodeling from homeostasis explains the concurrence of increased turnover and decreased plasma calcium in chronic renal failure; it is the homeostatic system, rather than the remodeling system, which is resistant to parathyroid hormone. The effect of mild hyperparathyroidism is a nonspecific increase in bone turnover, of which the best index is the bone formation rate measured by double tetracycline labeling expressed per unit of bone surface. Increased turnover is always accompanied by increased reversible mineral deficit. In prolonged hyperparathyroidism there is also accelerated irreversible bone loss manifested mainly as thinning of cortical bone, detectable in chronic renal failure before any symptoms, due to increased resorption depth on the endocortical surface. In severe hyperparathyroidism resorbed bone is replaced, not by a lesser quantity of normal bone, but by a mixture of vascular fibrous tissue and woven bone, referred to as osteitis fibrosa. In osteomalacia there is increased accumulation of osteoid, due not to increased turnover, but to prolongation of mineralization lag time, which in conjunction with increased thickness, surface and volume of osteoid is diagnostic. Converting histomorphometric data into category assignment discards most of the useful information, which can be retained by two-dimensional representation of severity. For the hyperparathyroid dimension, bone formation rate measured by double tetracycline labeling expressed per unit of bone surface is the most useful although not ideal. For the osteomalacic dimension a mineralization index was constructed that is unaffected by age or race. In patients with osteitis fibrosa, bone formation rate per unit of bone surface and mineralization index were inversely correlated. For the third dimension a structure/formation index was constructed which increases with age in healthy women and shows weak inverse correlation with bone formation rate. The structure/formation index is lower than normal in patients with osteitis fibrosa, and should be useful in the study of osteopenia in chronic renal failure. Bone formation rate is low in osteomalacia, but some patients have subnormal rates through quite a different mechanism. The frequency of this finding has been overestimated for several reasons: failure to exclude atypical osteomalacia (increased surface and volume but not thickness of osteoid), use of inappropriate reference values, and failure to measure the bone formation rate on endocortical and intracortical surfaces. In healthy women bone formation rate can be zero on the cancellous surface alone. Low bone formation rate is sometimes due to diabetes but most often is the expected response to subnormal parathyroid hormone secretion accompanying an excess of calcium, a situation recognized only recently because of improvement in parathyroid hormone assay methodology. Low cancellous bone formation rate should not increase fracture risk because turnover is much lower in the peripheral than in the central skeleton, and all reports of increased fracture risk are flawed or open to different interpretation. Low bone formation rate is associated with reduced skeletal buffering of calcium and increased soft tissue calcification. This is not a new disease needing its own treatment, however, but represents the final stage of skeletal adaptation to a surfeit of calcium. The concept of adynamic bone disease has been harmful by directing attention away from the most important consequence of over-treatment of hyperparathyroidism.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bone Diseases, Metabolic / diagnosis*
  • Bone Diseases, Metabolic / physiopathology*
  • Bone Remodeling*
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Feedback, Physiological
  • Humans
  • Hyperparathyroidism / etiology
  • Osteogenesis*
  • Osteomalacia / etiology
  • Osteoporosis / etiology
  • Renal Insufficiency / complications*


  • Calcium