• bone fragility;
  • bone quality;
  • lacunar occupancy;
  • receiver operating characteristic curve


Iliac cancellous osteocyte density declines with age, but its relationship to vertebral fracture pathogenesis is unknown. We performed iliac bone biopsy in 44 women with clinical vertebral fracture and 56 healthy women. The fracture patients had 34% fewer osteocytes but no reduction in percent occupied lacunae. Some patients destined to sustain vertebral fracture make cancellous bone with fewer osteocytes.

Introduction: Patient's with vertebral fracture have less bone than appropriate healthy controls, but other factors may contribute to bone fragility. Iliac cancellous osteocyte density declines with age in healthy women; we asked whether this variable differed between fracture patients and healthy controls.

Methods: Two groups of women were assembled. Forty-four (mean age, 66.2 years) had unequivocal evidence of bone fragility manifested as painful nontraumatic vertebral fracture, and 56 (mean age, 62.2 years) were skeletally healthy. All subjects underwent iliac bone biopsy. From archival embedded biopsy cores, new sections were stained with Goldner's trichrome, in which we enumerated osteocyte-occupied lacunae (stained), empty lacunae (unstained), and total lacunae per bone area.

Results: Cancellous osteocyte density was 34% lower in the fracture group than in the controls (p < 0.001); this difference was not a consequence of higher turnover, having less bone, or the small difference in age. The area under the receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curve for discrimination between the groups was >90% for osteocyte density and <75% for bone volume/tissue volume (BV/TV). The disease-related osteocyte deficit was accompanied by a proportionate reduction in empty lacunae and no change in percent occupied lacunae; therefor, it was not the result of premature death. Both superficial bone (<25 μm from the surface) and deep bone (>45 μm from the surface) were affected. In contrast, the age-related deficit is accompanied by an increase in empty lacunae and fall in percent osteocyte-occupied lacunae and occurs only in deep bone, but not in superficial bone.

Conclusions: In some patients destined to sustain spontaneous vertebral compression fracture, iliac cancellous bone is made with fewer osteocytes than normal; the mechanism of osteocyte incorporation into bone needs more detailed study. Osteocyte deficiency could contribute to bone fragility, either by impairing the detection of fatigue microdamage or by reducing canalicular fluid flow. Current practices of defining vertebral fracture based on morphometry alone regardless of symptoms, and diagnosing osteoporosis based on bone densitometry alone regardless of fracture history, should be reexamined.