Watching a historical based TV drama, which is usually pretty accurate in medical history as far as I know, portrayed a postmortem on a discovered skelton where death by consumption was determined due to holes in the bones of the sternum.

Yet, Tuberculosis (TB), also known in the past as consumption, is

a disease caused by bacteria that usually attacks the lungs, and at the turn of the 20th century, the leading cause of death in the United States.

Can TB cause bones to become full of holes? Is that why it was called consumption?

1 Answer 1


Yes, TB can affect bones (in extrapulmonary or more precisely osteoarticular TB), but that form is relatively rare nowadays [even more so in the West], and even rarer for the sternum to be affected. On the other hand, it is one of the ways in which ancient skeletons (or mummies) were diagnosed with TB, but sometimes confirming by some other means (e.g. PCR), as noted in a 2013 review

Bone and joint tuberculosis (TB) is an ancient disease. Evidence of osteoarticular TB has been detected in Egyptian mummies [7, 22, 70], Iron Age remains from Asia [63, 64], and skeletons of Europeans living in the Middle Ages [23] by histological or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) study [70, 71]. [...]

Bone and joint TB currently accounts for 2.2–4.7 % of all TB cases in Europe and the USA and around 10–15 % of EPTB [extrapulmonary tuberculosis] cases [...], whereas in undeveloped countries, particularly Asia, the incidence of EPTB increases to 15–20 % [68].


TB is one of the most common causes of rib osteomyelitis. [...]

Tuberculosis of the sternum is rarely reported and accounts for 1.5 % of bone and joint TB cases.

And from a more [paleo]history oriented paper:

Paleopathological diagnosis of tuberculosis (TB) essentially relies on the identification of macroscopic lesions in the skeleton that can be related to different manifestations of TB.

Alas the rest of the paper discusses tuberculous meningitis and its identification from skull impressions.

Another paper on diagnosing ancient skeletons with TB notes that a criterion is:

lesions that are mainly destructive, producing cavitation into the cancellous bone

and on prevalence in older times:

data from the preantibiotic era indicate that about 5–7% of cases showed bone changes (Steinbock, 1976)

As far naming goes, according to Wikipedia, TB

was historically called consumption due to the weight loss.

So that popular name was not due to effects on bones.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.