Osteoporotic vertebral fractures typically have a gradual onset, frequently remain clinically undetected, and do not seem to be related to traumatic events. The osteoporotic vertebrae may therefore be expected to display a less “optimal” bone architecture, leading to an uneven load distribution over the bone material. We evaluated the trabecular load distribution in an osteoporotic and a healthy vertebra under normal daily loading by combining three recent innovations: high resolution computed tomography (μCT) of entire bones, microfinite element analyses (μFEA), and parallel supercomputers. Much to our surprise, the number of highly loaded trabeculae was not higher in the osteoporotic vertebra than in the healthy one under normal daily loads (8% and 9%, respectively). The osteoporotic trabeculae were more oriented in the longitudinal direction, compensating for effects of bone loss and ensuring adequate stiffness for normal daily loading. The increased orientation did, however, make the osteoporotic structure less resistant against collateral “error” loads. In this case, the number of overloaded trabeculae in the osteoporotic vertebra was higher than in the healthy one (13% and 4%, respectively). These results strengthen the paradigm of a strong relationship between bone morphology and external loads applied during normal daily life. They also indicate that vertebral fractures result from actions like forward flexion or lifting, loads that may not be “daily” but are normally not traumatic either. If future clinical imaging techniques would enable such high-resolution images to be obtained in vivo, the combination of μCT and μFEA would produce a powerful tool to diagnose osteoporosis.
Keywords: Osteoporosis; Bone architecture; Microfinite element analyses