Variation in tibial functionality and fracture susceptibility among healthy, young adults arises from the acquisition of biologically distinct sets of traits


Address correspondence to: Karl J Jepsen, PhD, University of Michigan, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Room 2007, Biomedical Science Research Building, 109 Zina Pitcher Place, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2200. E-mail:


Physiological systems like bone respond to many genetic and environmental factors by adjusting traits in a highly coordinated, compensatory manner to establish organ-level function. To be mechanically functional, a bone should be sufficiently stiff and strong to support physiological loads. Factors impairing this process are expected to compromise strength and increase fracture risk. We tested the hypotheses that individuals with reduced stiffness relative to body size will show an increased risk of fracturing and that reduced strength arises from the acquisition of biologically distinct sets of traits (ie, different combinations of morphological and tissue-level mechanical properties). We assessed tibial functionality retrospectively for 336 young adult women and men engaged in military training, and calculated robustness (total area/bone length), cortical area (Ct.Ar), and tissue-mineral density (TMD). These three traits explained 69% to 72% of the variation in tibial stiffness (p < 0.0001). Having reduced stiffness relative to body size (body weight × bone length) was associated with odds ratios of 1.5 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.5–4.3) and 7.0 (95% CI, 2.0–25.1) for women and men, respectively, for developing a stress fracture based on radiography and scintigraphy. K-means cluster analysis was used to segregate men and women into subgroups based on robustness, Ct.Ar, and TMD adjusted for body size. Stiffness varied 37% to 42% among the clusters (p < 0.0001, ANOVA). For men, 78% of stress fracture cases segregated to three clusters (p < 0.03, chi-square). Clusters showing reduced function exhibited either slender tibias with the expected Ct.Ar and TMD relative to body size and robustness (ie, well-adapted bones) or robust tibias with reduced residuals for Ct.Ar or TMD relative to body size and robustness (ie, poorly adapted bones). Thus, we show there are multiple biomechanical and thus biological pathways leading to reduced function and increased fracture risk. Our results have important implications for developing personalized preventative diagnostics and treatments.