Spot the silent sufferers: A call for clinical diagnostic criteria for solar and nutritional osteomalacia

J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2019 Apr:188:141-146. doi: 10.1016/j.jsbmb.2019.01.004. Epub 2019 Jan 14.


Osteomalacia and rickets result from defective mineralization when the body is deprived of calcium. Globally, the main cause of osteomalacia is a lack of mineral supply for bone modeling and remodeling due to solar vitamin D and/or dietary calcium deficiency. Osteomalacia occurs when existing bone is replaced by unmineralized bone matrix (osteoid) during remodeling in children and adults, or when newly formed bone is not mineralized in time during modeling in children. Rickets occurs when hypomineralization affects the epiphyseal growth plate chondrocytes and adjacent bone metaphysis in growing children. Hence, osteomalacia co-exists with rickets in growing children. Several reports in the last decade highlight the resurgence of so-called "nutritional" rickets in the dark-skinned population living in high-income countries. However, very few studies have ever explored the hidden iceberg of nutritional osteomalacia in the population. Rickets presents with hypocalcaemic (seizures, tetany, cardiomyopathy), or hypophosphataemic complications (leg bowing, knock knees, rachitic rosary, muscle weakness) and is diagnosed on radiographs (cupping and fraying of metaphyses). In contrast, osteomalacia lacks distinctive, non-invasive diagnostic laboratory or imaging criteria and the clinical presentation is non-specific (general fatigue, malaise, muscle weakness and pain). Hence, osteomalacia remains largely undiagnosed, as a hidden disease in millions of dark-skinned people who are at greatest risk. Radiographs may demonstrate Looser's zone fractures in those most severely affected, however to date, osteomalacia remains a histological diagnosis requiring a bone biopsy. Biochemical features of high serum alkaline phosphatase (ALP), high parathyroid hormone (PTH) with or without low 25 hydroxyvitamin D (25OHD) concentrations are common to both rickets and osteomalacia. Here, we propose non-invasive diagnostic criteria for osteomalacia. We recommend a diagnosis of osteomalacia in the presence of high ALP, high PTH, low dietary calcium intake (<300 mg/day) and/or low serum 25OHD (<30 nmol/L). Presence of clinical symptoms (as above) or Looser's zone fractures should be used to reaffirm the diagnosis. We call for further studies to explore the true prevalence of nutritional osteomalacia in various populations, specifically the Black and Asian ethnic groups, in order to identify the hidden disease burden and inform public health policies for vitamin D/calcium supplementation and food fortification.

Keywords: Biopsy; Bone modeling; Bone turnover; Malnutrition; Micronutrient; Nutrition; Osteomalacia; Osteoporosis; Remodeling; Rickets.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alkaline Phosphatase / blood
  • Animals
  • Calcium / deficiency
  • Humans
  • Osteomalacia / blood
  • Osteomalacia / diagnosis*
  • Osteomalacia / epidemiology
  • Osteoporosis / diagnosis
  • Parathyroid Hormone / blood
  • Prevalence
  • Rickets / diagnosis
  • Vitamin D / analogs & derivatives
  • Vitamin D / blood
  • Vitamin D Deficiency / complications
  • Vitamin D Deficiency / diagnosis


  • Parathyroid Hormone
  • Vitamin D
  • 25-hydroxyvitamin D
  • Alkaline Phosphatase
  • Calcium