The Thickness of Human Vertebral Cortical Bone and its Changes in Aging and Osteoporosis: A Histomorphometric Analysis of the Complete Spinal Column from Thirty-Seven Autopsy Specimens



The object of this study was to analyze the cortical thickness (Ct.Th) of the ventral and dorsal shell of the vertebral bodies throughout the human spine in aging and in osteoporosis. Therefore, the complete front column of the spine of 26 autopsy cases (aged 17–90, mean 42 years) without diseases affecting the skeleton and of 11 cases (aged 58–92, mean 77 years) with proven osteoporosis were removed. A sagittal segment prepared through the center of all vertebral bodies was undecalcified, embedded in plastic, ground to a 1 mm thick block, and stained using a modification of the von Kossa method. The analysis included the measurement of the mean cortical thickness of both the ventral and dorsal shell, respectively (from the third cervical to the fifth lumbar vertebral body). The qualitative investigation of the structure of the cortical ring completed the analysis. The presented data revealed a biphasic curve for both the ventral and dorsal shell, skeletally intact with high values of the cortical thickness in the cervical spine (285 μm), and a decrease in the thoracic (244 μm) and an increase in the lumbar spine (290 μm). The mean thickness of the ventral shell is in general greater than the thickness of the dorsal shell in both skeletally normal and osteoporotic cases. The cortical thickness of the spine showed no gender-specific differences (p = NS). There was a slight decrease of the cortical thickness with aging; however, this decrease and the correlation of cortical thickness to age was only significant below vertebral body T8 (r = 0.225–0.574; pr < 0.05–0.005). Most interestingly, however, osteoporosis presents itself with a highly significant loss of cortical thickness throughout the whole spine. This decrease of cortical thickness was more marked in the dorsal shell (p < 0.05) than in the ventral shell (ventral from C3 to T6 [p < 0.05] below T6 [p = NS]). We therefore conclude that in osteoporosis the loss of spinal bone mass is not only a loss of trabecular structure but also a loss of cortical thickness. Furthermore, these results may explain the development of regions of least resistance within the spine in aging and the clustering of osteoporotic fractures in the lower thoracic and lumbar spine.