The Morbidity of Bone Disease in Thalassemia


Address for correspondence: Elliott P. Vichinsky. M. D., Director, Hematology/Oncology, Children's Hospital Oakland, 747 52nd Street, Oakland, California 94609. Telephone: 510-428-3651; Fax: 510-450-5647; E-mail:


Abstract: As thalassemia patients age, bone disease becomes a serious cause of morbidity. The frequency and type of bone disease is affected by the underlying type of thalassemia and its treatment. Problems include rickets, scoliosis, spinal deformities, nerve compression, fractures and severe osteoporosis. In early stages, patients may be asymptomatic but can present with back pain, a limp, dyspnea, neurological emergencies, or sudden fractures. The etiologies are often multifactorial, culminating with increased bone resorption and remodeling. They include hormonal deficiency, bone marrow expansion, nutritional deficiency, or desferal toxicity. Particular risk factors include older patients, low baseline hemoglobin, delayed puberty, hormonal failure, and high iron stores. Nutritional deficiencies may further compound the patient's risk for bone disease. Increasing evidence suggests that these complications and their associated long-term morbidity can be prevented if an annual screening is done, followed by long-term intervention. Patients treated with amino biphosphonates inhibit bone resorption and may demonstrate rapid healing. Intra-nasal calcitonin has also been successful in treating osteopenia. Early use of estrogen and testosterone appears to markedly lower the risk for selective patients. Both transfused and non-transfused patients should be educated about risk factors and early symptoms. All patients should be screened annually for bone disease. Once adolescence occurs, annual testing in selected cases should include bone density studies with X-ray absorptiometry.