The two faces of growth: benefits and risks to bone integrity

Osteoporos Int. 1994 Nov;4(6):382-98. doi: 10.1007/BF01622201.


Bones grow by two processes: cortical bone is made by periosteal apposition (growth in width), and cancellous bone is made by endochondral ossification (growth in length). In both the axial and appendicular skeleton, about half of peak adult bone mass is accumulated during the adolescent growth spurt, which occurs two years earlier in girls than in boys, and is under pituitary control via interactions between growth hormone and sex hormones. Throughout growth, but particularly during adolescence, the ability of bone to adapt to mechanical loading is much greater than after maturity. This is the main reason why the effects of physical activity on bone are greater in cross-sectional studies in young athletes than in longitudinal studies in previously sedentary adults. In wild animals, by the time growth has ceased, the bones must be as strong as they will ever need to be, and attainment of further strength after cessation of growth would serve no biologic purpose. Adaptation of growing bone to mechanical loading is the purpose of the mechanostat, which enables physiologic adaptation in individuals to establish and maintain a species-specific property of the bones that is determined by evolutionary adaptation in populations. But growth confers risks as well as benefits to the skeleton. The large increase in incidence of upper extremity (particularly lower forearm) fractures, coincident with the adolescent growth spurt in both sexes, is due to an increase in cortical porosity as a consequence of an increase in intracortical bone turnover, which supplies some of the calcium needed by the growing ends of the long bones. This enables an increased demand for calcium to be spread over a longer time, analogous to the cyclic physiologic osteoporosis which occurs during the antler growth cycle in deer. The subsequent decline in cortical porosity is responsible for the continued increase in radial bone density after cessation of growth, referred to as consolidation. In the present state of knowledge, an increased incidence of fracture during the adolescent growth spurt is the inescapable consequence of an appropriate level of physical activity, and is the price that has to be paid in order to maximize bone accumulation during growth and minimize fracture risk in old age.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Animals
  • Bone Development / physiology*
  • Bone Remodeling / physiology
  • Bone and Bones / physiology
  • Calcification, Physiologic
  • Exercise / physiology
  • Female
  • Fractures, Bone / etiology*
  • Humans
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I / analysis
  • Male
  • Osteoporosis, Postmenopausal / physiopathology
  • Puberty / physiology
  • Risk Factors


  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I