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Wellcome Image of the Month: Osteoporosis

26 Oct, 2012

Osteoporotic bone from the vertebra The 20th of October 2012 marked World Osteoporosis Day, which highlighted an often overlooked public health epidemic.

Osteoporosis or ‘porous bones’ is a chronic condition affecting at least 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men over the age of 50. Bones deteriorate, become weak and fragile, and more susceptible to fracture. Almost 9 million fractures occurring in the world each year are a result of osteoporosis and this is set to increase as the population ages.

Bone is constantly being broken down and rebuilt in a dynamic process of bone remodelling (or bone metabolism). Cells called ‘osteoclasts’ breakdown old bone tissue while new bone is formed by a different group of cells, ‘osteoblasts’. As we age, the balance between these two processes shifts more towards bone loss, and in women a decrease in the hormone oestrogen post-menopause can exacerbate this even further. Researchers estimate that the number of postmenopausal women living with osteoporosis in the UK will increase from 1.8 million in 2010 to 2.1 million by 2020.

Normal bone - Scanning electron micrograph

Normal bone – Scanning electron micrograph

Osteoporotic fractures occur most commonly in the hip, spine and wrist. This month’s image shows a sample of bone from a vertebra near the base of the spine of an 89 year old woman with osteoporosis. In contrast to normal bone (an example on the left), the osteoporotic bone is very thin and in some areas also clearly fractured.

The actual size of the osteoporotic bone sample at the top is 2.7 mm across (the normal bone sample is 5.24mm). The images were acquired by scanning electron microscopy by former Wellcome Image Awards winner Professor Alan Boyde at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Osteoporosis is a long-term condition that usually lacks early warning signs or symptoms, and is often left untreated. Keep bones healthy and help reduce the risk of developing bone disease by maintaining good levels of calcium and vitamin D.

Sabrina Taner, Wellcome Images


  • Johnell O, & Kanis JA (2006). An estimate of the worldwide prevalence and disability associated with osteoporotic fractures. Osteoporosis international : a journal established as result of cooperation between the European Foundation for Osteoporosis and the National Osteoporosis Foundation of the USA, 17 (12), 1726-33 PMID: 16983459
  • Ström O, Borgström F, Kanis JA, Compston J, Cooper C, McCloskey EV, & Jönsson B (2011). Osteoporosis: burden, health care provision and opportunities in the EU: a report prepared in collaboration with the International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF) and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industry Associations (EFPIA). Archives of osteoporosis, 6 (1-2), 59-155 PMID: 22886101
  • Gauthier A, Kanis JA, Jiang Y, Martin M, Compston JE, Borgström F, Cooper C, & McCloskey EV (2011). Epidemiological burden of postmenopausal osteoporosis in the UK from 2010 to 2021: estimations from a disease model. Archives of osteoporosis, 6 (1-2), 179-88 PMID: 22886104

Further information

Image credits: Professor Alan Boyde, Wellcome Images

Wellcome Images is one of the world’s richest and most unusual collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science. All our images are available in digital form so please click the link above if you would like to use the picture that features in this post, or to quickly find related ones. Many are free to use non-commercially under the terms of a Creative Commons licence and full details of the specific licence for each image are provided.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Sheila permalink
    27 Oct, 2012 1:56 pm

    Wow! It is amazing how a beautiful image and a clear explanation can make such an impact. Thank you for making the science accessible to the lay reader on such a frequently encountered and worrying term.

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