Rickets (Calcium, Phosphate, or Vitamin D Deficiency)

  • Medical Author:
    David Perlstein, MD, MBA, FAAP

    Dr. Perlstein received his Medical Degree from the University of Cincinnati and then completed his internship and residency in pediatrics at The New York Hospital, Cornell medical Center in New York City. After serving an additional year as Chief Pediatric Resident, he worked as a private practitioner and then was appointed Director of Ambulatory Pediatrics at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Quick GuideVitamin D Deficiency: How Much Vitamin D Is Enough?

Vitamin D Deficiency: How Much Vitamin D Is Enough?

What causes rickets?

Regardless of the type of rickets, the cause is always either due to a deficiency of vitamin D, calcium, or phosphate. Three common causes of rickets include nutritional rickets, hypophosphatemic rickets, and renal rickets.

Nutritional rickets

Nutritional rickets, also called osteomalacia, is a condition caused by vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is essential for the normal formation of bones and teeth and necessary for the appropriate absorption of calcium and phosphorus from the bowels. It occurs naturally in very small quantities in some foods such as saltwater fish (salmon, sardines, herring, and fish-liver oils). Vitamin D is also naturally synthesized by skin cells in response to sunlight exposure. It is necessary for the appropriate absorption of calcium from the gut.

Infants and children most at risk for developing nutritional rickets include dark-skinned infants, exclusively breastfed infants, and infants who are born to mothers who are vitamin D deficient. In addition, older children who are kept out of direct sunlight or who have vegan diets may also be at risk.

Hypophosphatemic rickets

Hypophosphatemic rickets is caused by chronically low levels of phosphate in the blood. The bones become painfully soft and pliable. This is caused by a genetic dominant X-linked defect in the ability for the kidneys to control the amount of phosphate excreted in the urine. The individual affected is able to absorb phosphate and calcium, but the phosphate is lost through the kidneys into the urine. This is not caused by a vitamin D deficiency. Patients with hypophosphatemic rickets typically have obvious symptoms by 1 year of age. Treatment is generally through nutritional supplements of phosphate and calcitriol (the activated form of vitamin D).

Renal (kidney) rickets

Similar to hypophosphatemic rickets, renal rickets is caused by a number of kidney disorders. Individuals suffering from kidney disease often have decreased ability to regulate the amounts of electrolytes lost in the urine. This includes calcium and phosphate, and therefore the affected individuals develop symptoms almost identical to severe nutritional rickets. Treatment of the underlying kidney problem and nutritional supplementation are recommended for these patients.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/7/2016

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