Uncovering the Cause of “Phossy Jaw” Circa 1858 to 1906: Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Closed Case Files—Case Closed

  • Robert E. Marx
    Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr Marx: Division of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Miller School of Medicine, University of Miami, 9380 SW 150th St, Suite 190, Miami, FL 33157
    Professor of Surgery and Chief, Division of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Miami, FL
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      The infamous “phossy jaw” that created an epidemic of exposed bone osteonecrosis exclusively in the jaws began around 1858 and continued until 1906, with only a few cases appearing since that time. This epidemic of osteonecrosis produced pain, swelling, debilitation, and a reported mortality of 20% and was linked to “yellow phosphorous,” the key ingredient in “strike-anywhere” matches. In match-making factories, workers called “mixers,” “dippers,” and “boxers” were exposed to heated fumes containing this compound. Related to the duration of exposure, many of these workers developed painful exposed bone in the mouth, whereas their office-based counterparts did not. The exposed bone and clinical course were eerily similar to what modern day oral and maxillofacial surgeons see due to bisphosphonates used to treat metastatic cancer deposits in bone or osteoporosis.
      Although yellow phosphorus has a simple chemistry of P4O10, when combined with H2O and CO2 from respiration and with common amino acids, such as lysine, bisphosphonates almost identical to alendronate (Fosamax; Novartis Pharmaceuticals, East Hanover, NJ) and pamidronate (Aredia; Novartis Pharmaceuticals) result. Forensic evidence directly points to conversion of the yellow phosphorus in patients with “phossy jaw” to potent amino bisphosphonates by natural chemical reactions in the human body. Thus, the cause of phossy jaw in the late 1800s was actually bisphosphonate-induced osteonecrosis of the jaws, long before clever modern pharmaceutical chemists synthesized bisphosphonates. Today's bisphosphonate-induced osteonecrosis represents the second epidemic of “phossy jaw.” Case closed.
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