Sexual Dimorphism in Newborn Vertebrae and Its Potential Implications.
OBJECTIVE: To examine whether the sex-related differences in vertebral cross-sectional area (CSA) found in children and at the timing of peak bone mass-a major determinant of osteoporosis and future fracture risk-are also present at birth.STUDY DESIGN: Vertebral CSA, vertebral height, and intervertebral disc height were measured using magnetic resonance imaging in 70 healthy full-term newborns (35 males and 35 females). The length and CSA of the humerus, musculature, and adiposity were measured as well.RESULTS: Weight, body length, and head and waist circumferences did not differ significantly between males and females (P ≥ .06 for all). Compared with newborn boys, girls had significantly smaller mean vertebral cross-sectional dimensions (1.47 ± 0.11 vs 1.31 ± 0.12; P < .0001). Multiple linear regression analysis identified sex as a predictor of vertebral CSA independent of gestational age, birth weight, and body length. In contrast, the sexes were monomorphic with regard to vertebral height, intervertebral disc height, and spinal length (P ≥ .11 for all). There were also no sex differences in the length or cross-sectional dimensions of the humerus or in measures of musculature and adiposity (P ≥ .10 for all).CONCLUSION: Factors related to sex influence fetal development of the axial skeleton. The smaller vertebral CSA in females is associated with greater flexibility of the spine, which could represent the human adaptation to fetal load. Unfortunately, it also imparts a mechanical disadvantage that increases stress within the vertebrae for all physical activities and increases the susceptibility to fragility fractures later in life.