Rickets, a disease that affects the developing skeletal system of children and other young animals, is the result of the body's inability to absorb calcium and phosphate. The disease is characterized by soft, weak and deformed bones. Rickets also occurs in adults, but it is then called osteomalacia because the affected bones are already formed. In adults, osteomalacia causes the bones of the skeletal system to become weak and soft.
Rickets is usually the result of a Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is consumed through a proper diet and produced by the body with adequate exposure to sunlight. This vitamin is very important to the body because it helps aid in the absorption of calcium and phosphate, the minerals responsible for the strength and hardness of the bones.
Malnutrition is a major cause of rickets which can develop at any time during life, including while a baby is still in the womb. A perpetual lack of sunlight can also cause rickets. One form of rickets, called vitamin D resistant rickets, is a hereditary disease that involves the kidneys' inability to retain proper phosphate levels in the body. Chronic kidney failure that is not inherited may also be an underlying cause of rickets. Other underlying diseases or problems with the bowels can result in rickets in both adults and children.
A person with rickets may have severely bowed legs, deformation of the spine, chest and pelvis, bones that break easily and severely stunted growth. In severe cases, the knees bulge or appear very large, and there may also be other visible bone deformations characterized by posture and gait.
Rickets is diagnosed by performing blood tests to measure calcium and phosphate levels, and by using x-rays to visually asses the bone condition. A person's dietary and lifestyle history is also assessed. For example, a person who is confined to their home is more likely to develop rickets. This history can help gauge risk factors and rule out other underlying causes.
When rickets is caused by malnutrition or lack of sunlight, it can be treated with vitamin D supplements and sun exposure. Rickets caused by underlying diseases can be corrected by treating the primary disease. Bone deformities in young children often correct themselves depending on their severity. Children and adults can also wear braces and maintain proper posture to counteract bowed legs and spinal complications. In severe cases, surgery may be the only way to correct deformities.
Rickets is not as common in the United States as it is in other countries that have limited food supplies or diets with little variety. However, it is still important to maintain a diet rich in vitamin D. Foods like vitamin fortified milk and cereals, fish and liver are rich in vitamin D.