Support and Protection
The skeletal system’s primary function is to form a solid framework that supports and protects the body’s organs and anchors the skeletal muscles. The bones of the axial skeleton act as a hard shell to protect the internal organs—such as the brain and the heart—from damage caused by external forces. The bones of the appendicular skeleton provide support and flexibility at the joints and anchor the muscles that move the limbs.
The bones of the skeletal system act as attachment points for the skeletal muscles of the body. Almost every skeletal muscle works by pulling two or more bones either closer together or further apart. Joints act as pivot points for the movement of the bones. The regions of each bone where muscles attach to the bone grow larger and stronger to support the additional force of the muscle. In addition, the overall mass and thickness of a bone increase when it is under a lot of stress from lifting weights or supporting body weight.
Red bone marrow produces red and white blood cells in a process known as hematopoiesis. Red bone marrow is found in the hollow space inside of bones known as the medullary cavity. Children tend to have more red bone marrow compared to their body size than adults do, due to their body’s constant growth and development. The amount of red bone marrow drops off at the end of puberty, replaced by yellow bone marrow.
The skeletal system stores many different types of essential substances to facilitate growth and repair of the body. The skeletal system’s cell matrix acts as our calcium bank by storing and releasing calcium ions into the blood as needed. Proper levels of calcium ions in the blood are essential to the proper function of the nervous and muscular systems. Bone cells also release osteocalcin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar and fat deposition. The yellow bone marrow inside of our hollow long bones is used to store energy in the form of lipids. Finally, red bone marrow stores some iron in the form of the molecule ferritin and uses this iron to form hemoglobin in red blood cells.
Growth and Development
The skeleton begins to form early in fetal development as a flexible skeleton made of hyaline cartilage and dense irregular fibrous connective tissue. These tissues act as a soft, growing framework and placeholder for the bony skeleton that will replace them. As development progresses, blood vessels begin to grow into the soft fetal skeleton, bringing stem cells and nutrients for bone growth. Osseous tissue slowly replaces the cartilage and fibrous tissue in a process called calcification. The calcified areas spread out from their blood vessels replacing the old tissues until they reach the border of another bony area. At birth, the skeleton of a newborn has more than 300 bones; as a person ages, these bones grow together and fuse into larger bones, leaving adults with only 206 bones.
Flat bones follow the process of intramembranous ossification where the young bones grow from a primary ossification center in fibrous membranes and leave a small region of fibrous tissue in between each other. In the skull these soft spots are known as fontanels, and give the skull flexibility and room for the bones to grow. Bone slowly replaces the fontanels until the individual bones of the skull fuse together to form a rigid adult skull.
Long bones follow the process of endochondral ossification where the diaphysis grows inside of cartilage from a primary ossification center until it forms most of the bone. The epiphyses then grow from secondary ossification centers on the ends of the bone. A small band of hyaline cartilage remains in between the bones as a growth plate. As we grow through childhood, the growth plates grow under the influence of growth and sex hormones, slowly separating the bones. At the same time the bones grow larger by growing back into the growth plates. This process continues until the end of puberty, when the growth plate stops growing and the bones fuse permanently into a single bone. The vast difference in height and limb length between birth and adulthood are mainly the result of endochondral ossification in the long bones.
Diseases and Conditions
A number of musculoskeletal health issues, from arthritis to cancer, can impair our mobility and lead to loss of quality of life or even death. At other times, symptoms of joint pain can lead to diagnoses of other underlying health problems. Pay attention to joint pain and any changes you perceive in your ability to move, sharing those with your healthcare provider. Also, you can learn more about DNA health tests, which can tell you if you’re at a genetically higher risk of hemochromatosis—one of the most common hereditary disorders, causing joint pain—as well as Gaucher disease. Testing can also tell you if you’re an asymptomatic carrier of the genetic variant that you could pass along to your children.