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Skeletal System


The skeletal system is one of the most important systems within the human body. Not only does it provide a protective frame for the body?s internal organs and support for muscular contractions, it is also superbly designed to allow movement, and to act as a store for vitally important minerals(1).

There are approximately 206 bones in the average human skeleton, and thus bones make up the majority of the skeletal system, however there are many other facets to it. Most definitions will include the bones along with joints, cartilage and ligaments (2).


Bone is a remarkably strong but light material which is ever changing throughout life. It has many functions (1):

Support and protection
Storage and release of minerals
Blood cell production

These functions are vital to life, which is why it is so important to look after the health of the bones wherever possible.


The bones of the body fall into four general categories: long bones, short bones, flat bones and irregular bones. All bone is composed of two types of tissue: compact or dense bone, which is hard and forms the protective exterior portion of all bones, and spongy bone which is inside the compact bone and is very porous. The bones act as important mineral stores for Calcium in particular, which is required to provide some of the strength of the bones (3).

Bone growth begins before birth and continues into adulthood. The bones of a baby and of a child are quite soft and will only become rigid when growth stops during late adolescence (1). Even after this, bone is continuously being broken down and rebuilt.

There are several types of joint, classified according to the type of tissue that connects the two bones. The three major types are fibrous, cartilaginous and synovial. Fibrous joints consist of two bones connected by fibrous tissue, they provide little or no movement. Cartilaginous joints use cartilage to couple bones, these joints allow very limited movement. Synovial joints are the most common and allow the most movement.

Cartilage acts as a connection and cushion between bones. It is a tough tissue, which stands up well to pressure.

Ligaments serve as attachments between bones and can prevent excess movements.


The literal meaning of Osteoporosis is porous bone. It is a condition in which the bones may become brittle and liable to Fracture (4). The risk of developing this disease increases with age. The bone tissue of an adult is usually at its most dense between the ages of 30 and 35 years (5). After this age the bone density will decline naturally (6).

Bone loss tends to be greater in women than in men, primarily due to increased bone loss during the menopausal and post-menopausal years. This is due to hormonal changes, especially the loss of the protective effects of oestrogen, as levels decline.

The whole skeleton may be affected by osteoporosis, however bone loss is usually greatest in the spine, hips and ribs. In many cases there are no obvious symptoms of osteoporosis and the first sign may be a Fracture resulting from a fairly minor fall (5).

The only treatment that has been developed for osteoporosis is the proper use of certain nutrients and regular exercise.

Increasing bone mass during adolescence and early adulthood through sufficient Calcium intake could decrease the risk of osteoporosis later in life. Many studies have shown that calcium supplementation can be effective in reducing age-related bone loss (7). It may also be beneficial to take Magnesium and Vitamin D supplements because these two nutrients are involved in the uptake and utilisation of calcium. Studies have examined vitamin D and calcium supplementation and found that it may moderately reduce bone loss (8).

Other nutrients have also been linked to either a preventative, or therapeutic role in osteoporosis. These include the amino acid lysine, which is thought to enhance intestinal calcium absorption (9), Vitamin C, which has been associated with higher bone mineral density in early post-menopausal women (10), and Boron, which has been shown to reduce losses of dietary calcium.

Osteomalacia is the adult form of rickets. It is a Vitamin D deficiency disease usually occurring because of a lack of exposure to sunlight. It occurs most commonly in women who have repeated pregnancies and breastfeed their babies. This leads to Calcium reserves being depleted and not being replaced because vitamin D is not available.

Another well known and common disease of the skeletal system is Arthritis, however there are two very different forms of this condition:

OsteoArthritis is also termed "degenerative joint disease", and it is characterised by painful and stiff joints, especially the knees, hips, ankles and hands. These tend to be the joints that are used most in the body and over the years progressive damage may be caused. Unfortunately the natural ageing process slows down our ability to regenerate and repair damaged or aged tissue leading to Pain and a degree of immobility (11).

Osteoarthritis can be brought about by several factors. There is a degree of heredity in the condition; it is also more likely that those who are overweight will develop problems than those who maintain the correct body weight for their height and build. This is due to the extra strain that may be put on the joints. It is also likely that any injury or damage to a joint will increase the chance of osteoarthritis developing later in life.

Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid Arthritis is caused by an auto-immune reaction. Instead of protecting the body from disease, a fault means that antibodies actually attack the joints. This results in characteristic Inflammation and swelling. The condition can affect the whole body causing severe Fatigue and weakness, mild fever, joint Pain and stiffness, and tenderness. This condition afflicts three times as many women as men (11).

There are several dietary factors which arthritis sufferers may like to consider. Studies have suggested reducing intakes of dairy and meat products may reduce pain in arthritis sufferers(12). It is thought that large amounts of saturated fats may inhibit the production of beneficial prostaglandins which have an anti-inflammatory effect. Tea, coffee, fizzy drinks and chocolate intake should be reduced by sufferers of osteoarthritis because they contain chemicals such as phytates, oxalates and phosphates which reduce calcium absorption.

Many arthritis sufferers choose to take a Fish Oil supplement providing the essential polyunsaturated fatty acids EPA and DHA. Improvements in tender joints and morning stiffness have often been recorded using these Essential Fatty Acids (13). These Essential Fatty Acids are involved in the production of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins.

It is also thought that antioxidant nutrients such as Vitamin E and Selenium may have an anti-inflammatory effect.

The herb Devil?s Claw has traditionally been used in the treatment of a variety of conditions, especially rheumatoid arthritis, where it is said to possess anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.

Glucosamine Sulphate is an amino sugar, which occurs naturally in the connective tissue, cartilage, tendons, ligaments etc. It is thought to stimulate the cells which are involved in the production of bone and cartilage. It is often used to support the health of the joints and many people find it can support health in cases of osteoarthritis (14).

Gout is a condition often associated with excesses of meat and alcohol, however this is not always the case. Gout occurs when uric acid crystals are deposited in the joints. Dietary advice to combat the condition usually revolves around taking in plenty of fluids to promote the excretion of the uric acid, reducing the intake of certain protein foods and keeping refined foods to a minimum.

Supplements which have traditionally been used include celery seed, which is thought to help eliminate uric acid through the kidneys, and cherries or other sources of anthocyanidins, which are thought to help to decrease Inflammation and uric acid levels (15).

Sports injuries
Many of the most common problems of the skeletal system come under the heading of sports injuries. These tend to involve problems with the cartilage or ligaments such as tears. Glucosamine Sulphate may also be helpful in these cases. One study looked at its use in a group of 18-20 year olds with cartilage injuries and showed it was helpful in aiding their recovery (16).


There are several key pieces of advice for keeping the skeletal system as healthy as possible:

Eat a healthy balanced diet (particularly maintaining adequate Calcium intake during adolescence and early adulthood)
Take moderate exercise, however try to avoid putting unnecessary Stress on the joints
Avoid Smoking
Cut down on tea, coffee and fizzy drinks wherever possible.


Devil's Claw


Glucosamine Sulphate
Vitamin D
Vitamin E


1. Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, GR Tortora & SR Grabowski, HarperCollins, 1996
2. Human Physiology, L. Sherwood, West Publishing, 2nd edn, 1993
3. Nutrition - Concepts and Controversies, F Sizer & E Whitney, 6th edn,1994
4. Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary, Ed. EA Martin, OUP,1998
5. The BMA Complete Family Health Encyclopaedia, Ed. T Smith, Dorling Kindersley 1995
6. Human Nutrition and Dietetics, J Garrow & W James, Churchill Livingstone, 9th edn 1993
7. HealthPlus 1993-1997
8. New England Journal of Medicine, 1997; 337: 670-6
9. Nutrition, 1992; 8: 400-405
10. Arthritis, Prof. PA Dieppe, Equation,1988
11. British Journal of Rheumatology. June 1993, 32;6:507-14)
12. Encyclopaedia of Natural Medicine, M. Murray and J. Pizzorno, Optima 1990).
13. Lipids, Mar 1996, 31 supp; 5243-7
14. Med. Hypotheses, 1996, 47;4: 273-275
15. Journal Epidemiol. Community Health, 1997 Oct 51:5 479-85
16. (16)Nutritional influences on illness, M.R. Werbach, Thorsons, 1987

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