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Structure and composition of bone

Long bones such as the femur contain two distinct morphological types of bone:

  • Cortical (compact) bone
  • Cancellous or Trabecular (spongy) bone

These are shown in the figure below.

Image of bone morhology

Diagram of distinct morphological types of bone

Cortical bone forms a dense cylinder down the shaft of the bone surrounding the central marrow cavity. While cortical bone accounts for 80% of the mass of bone in the human body, it has a much lower surface area than cancellous bone due to its lower porosity.

Cancellous (or trabecular) bone is located at the ends of long bones, accounts for roughly 20% of the total mass of the skeleton, and has an open, honeycomb structure. It has a much lower Young’s modulus than cortical bone, and this graded modulus gradually matches the properties of the cortical bone to the cartilage that forms the articulating surface on the femoral head.


Bone itself consists mainly of collagen fibres and an inorganic bone mineral in the form of small crystals. In vivo bone (living bone in the body) contains between 10% and 20% water. Of its dry mass, approximately 60-70% is bone mineral. Most of the rest is collagen, but bone also contains a small amount of other substances such as proteins and inorganic salts.

Collagen is the main fibrous protein in the body. It has a triple helical structure, and specific points along the collagen fibres serve as nucleation sites for the bone mineral crystals. This is shown in the animation below.

The composition of the mineral component can be approximated as hydroxyapatite (HA), with the chemical formula Ca10(PO4)6(OH)2. However, whereas HA as has a Ca:P ratio of 5:3 (1.67), bone mineral itself has Ca:P ratios ranging from 1.37 - 1.87. This is because the composition of bone mineral is much more complex and contains additional ions such as silicon, carbonate and zinc.

Cartilage is a collagen-based tissue containing very large protein-polysaccharide molecules that form a gel in which the collagen fibres are entangled. Articular, or hyaline, cartilage forms the bearing surfaces of the movable joints of the body. Mechanically, articular cartilage behaves as a linear viscoelastic solid. It also has a very low coefficient of friction (< 0.01), largely attributed to the presence of synovial fluid that can be squeezed out upon compressive loading.

The animation below allows you to explore the microstructure of cortical bone.

Note: This animation requires Adobe Flash Player 8 and later, which can be downloaded here.


Bones such as the femur are subjected to a bending moment, and the stresses (both tensile and compressive) generated by this bending moment account for the structure and distribution of cancellous and cortical bone.

In the upper section of the femur, the cancellous bone is composed of two distinct systems of trabeculae. One system follows curved paths from the inner side of the shaft and radiates outwards to the opposite side of the bones, following the lines of maximum compressive stress. The second system forms curved paths from the outer side of the shaft and intersects the first system at right angles. These trabeculae follow the lines of maximum tensile stress, and in general are lighter in structure than those of the compressive system.

The thickness of the trabeculae varies with the magnitude of the stresses at any point, and by following the paths of the principal compressive and tensile stresses they carry these stresses economically. The greatest strength is therefore achieved with the minimum of material.

The distribution of the compact bone in the shaft is also due to the requirement to resist the bending moment stresses. To resist these stresses, the material should be as far from the neutral axis as possible. A hollow cylinder is the most efficient structure, again achieving the greatest strength with the minimum of material.

Diagram showing computed lines of constant stress from the analysis of various transverse sections

Diagram showing computed lines of constant stress from the analysis of various transverse sections

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