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What is osteomalacia?
In order to make healthy bone, your body needs calcium and vitamin D. Osteomalacia is a condition in which your bones become soft because of a lack of calcium and phosphate, often due to not getting enough vitamin D.
In children, whose bones are still growing, this condition is called rickets.
Your body needs vitamin D in order to absorb calcium and phosphorus, which are both necessary for making strong, healthy bone. When vitamin D, calcium or phosphorus levels are poor, bones can become soft and prone to fractures.
Vitamin D is found in some foods, particularly fish and dairy products (see below for details). However, in most people, vitamin D is produced by the body. Skin cells make a precursor of vitamin D when exposed to sunlight.
Most people have enough vitamin D by some combination of these two routes. However, people who eat a diet poor in vitamin D and who also are not exposed to enough sunlight may be deficient in vitamin D. Problems in processing vitamin D in the gastrointestinal tract, liver or kidneys can also cause vitamin D deficiency.
Risk factors for osteomalacia include:
- A diet poor in vitamin D or calcium;
- Living in areas or conditions where you get very little exposure to sunlight, or regularly wearing clothing that covers nearly all of your body;
- Having darker skin;
- Being of an older age;
- Having a condition that interferes with vitamin D metabolism, including some bowel diseases, kidney or liver problems;
- Having a condition that interferes with calcium metabolism;
- Taking certain medications, such as medication for treating osteoporosis  , and;
- Being a breastfed infant whose mother is vitamin D deficient.
Signs and symptoms
Signs and symptoms of osteomalacia include:
Methods for diagnosis
Your doctor will diagnose osteomalacia based on your symptoms and the results of tests, including:
Types of treatment
Treatment of osteomalacia focuses on you getting enough vitamin D, calcium and phosphorus in your diet and getting regular sunlight exposure. Your doctor may advise you to add certain vitamin-rich or calcium-rich foods to your diet, or to begin taking nutritional supplements.
Dietary vitamin D
Good sources of dietary vitamin D include:
- Fish - including salmon, snapper, whitefish, mackerel, trout and herring;
- Whole milk, butter and margarine;
- Ricotta cheese;
- Egg yolks;
- Some types of mushrooms, such as shiitake mushrooms;
- Tofu, and;
- Foods fortified with vitamin D. These can include juices, yogurt, cereals, soy milk, almond milk and many others. Check the labelling of the package for vitamin D levels.
Exposure to sunlight
Your body needs some exposure to sunlight in order to make vitamin D. The ultraviolet radiation in sunlight (specifically UVB) activates the vitamin.
However, UVB exposure puts you at risk of skin cancer. Striking the right balance between underexposure and overexposure is not always easy. Note that your body needs only a few minutes daily of direct sunlight - in the morning or afternoon - in order to make active vitamin D.
If vitamin D levels return to normal, osteomalacia should go away within a few weeks to months.
Unless there is an underlying medical condition, osteomalacia can be prevented by including enough vitamin D in your diet and getting enough sunlight.