Perthes’ disease (also known as Legg-Calve-Perthes’ disease) occurs in children when blood supply is disrupted to the top of the thighbone (femur), leading to pain and damage in the hip joint.…
Avascular necrosis (osteonecrosis)
What is avascular necrosis?
Avascular necrosis, or osteonecrosis, is the name given to bone death, a condition that occurs when the blood supply to an area of the bone is cut off either temporarily or permanently.
Bone is living tissue, which is supplied by many blood vessels. Bone that does not have a supply of blood (avascular) for an extended period of time becomes brittle and eventually collapses. This can lead to severe cases of arthritis and dysfunction in the affected joint.
The thighbone (femur) is the most commonly affected bone, followed by the shoulder. Other large joints, including the knee, ankle and wrist, can also be affected.
This condition is also known as ischaemic bone necrosis, aseptic necrosis and bone infarction.
The inside of the bones consists of a strong, honeycomb-like structural tissue, called trabecular tissue. This tissue forms a lattice pattern along the bone stress lines next to bone marrow cavities. Without a fresh blood supply, the trabecular tissue ceases to provide structure or strength to the bone, which often causes the bone to collapse. Certain bones are more at risk, as they rely only on one or very few blood vessels for their blood supply. The ball-shaped end of the femur, which forms part of the hip joint, relies on blood vessels that pass through the thinner shaft of the femur, which can be broken during a fall.
The most common causes of avascular necrosis are as follows:
- Corticosteroid medications - when taken in high dosages or long-term, these medications have been found to cause avascular necrosis, but the exact reasons why have not been identified;
- Chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment - these can damage blood vessels as a side effect of treatment, and;
- Long-term and excessive alcohol consumption - the exact effect of alcohol on bones has not been determined.
There are several risk factors that can result in avascular necrosis:
- Corticosteroid medication that is used in high doses or long-term;
- Chemotherapy or radiotherapy;
- Organ transplants;
- HIV, Gaucher disease and cancer;
- Lupus, gout and decompression sickness ('the bends') and blood-clotting illnesses such as sickle-cell anemia;
- Osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and vasculitis (inflamed blood vessels);
- Bisphosphonates - medication given to prevent bone disorders;
- Previous dislocation or bone fracture, and;
- Cigarette smoking, asthma and pancreatitis.
Osteonecrosis of the jaw
Osteonecrosis of the jaw is a rare and serious condition, in which the cells of the jawbone begin to die. This can sometimes develop following radiotherapy to the head and neck area, bisphosphonates treatment, or after a tooth extraction while having either of the two treatments. The symptoms of osteonecrosis of the jaw include severe pain and development of an infection or pus in the exposed area.
Spontaneous osteonecrosis of the knee
Spontaneous osteonecrosis of the knee is when a section of the knee bone dies. It is more common in women and has been linked to osteoporosis. The symptoms usually start in the inner knee, and include localized swelling and tenderness.
Perthes' disease, also known as coxa plana or Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, is a type of avascular necrosis that affects the hip joints of children - most often boys - aged between 3-11 years, for reasons that are currently unknown. During this condition, there is a reduced supply of blood to the round head of the thighbone, known as the femoral head, which fits into the hip socket. This causes loss of bone cells and softening and collapse of the hip joint, which results in pain, limping and reduced movement.
However, most children will recover fully and without complications, using treatments such as braces, pain-relief medications and rest from high-impact activities.
Signs and symptoms
During the first stages of avascular necrosis, there are often no signs or symptoms. Once the bone damage worsens, however, the following symptoms may develop:
- Pain that does not stop during rest;
- Stiffness and limited range of movement;
- Limping and pain in the groin area while walking;
- Pain that becomes worse, or severe if a bone collapses, and;
- Severe and painful osteoarthritis in the affected joint once the bone collapses.
Methods for diagnosis
A doctor can suspect avascular necrosis based on a person's medical history and a physical examination. To help confirm the diagnosis, the following tests may also be carried out.
An X-ray is usually the first recommended imaging test for any bone condition. However, as X-rays are not always useful for detecting avascular necrosis in its early stages, they are used more often to track the condition's progression.
Magnetic resonance imaging
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) creates an image that can detect changes in the density and structure of your bones. MRI is considered the best option for diagnosing avascular necrosis, as the scans can reveal any chemical changes in the bone marrow, as well as the presence of abnormal tissue, prior to development of any symptoms.
Computerized tomography scan
A computerized tomography (CT) scan can provide detailed imaging of the interior bone structure, revealing any areas of avascular necrosis.
In a bone scan a radioactive substance is injected into the bloodstream. Its circulation is detected by a gamma camera, revealing any problem with blood flow to the bones.
A bone biopsy can provide supportive evidence of avascular necrosis, but as it requires surgery, non-invasive tests such as MRI are usually preferred.
Types of treatment
The type of treatment offered will depend on the level of damage in the bones, age, activity levels, life expectancy and presence of other health conditions. If avascular necrosis is in its early stages, more treatment options are available than in cases of severe avascular necrosis. Treatment options will typically be decided by a specialist and can include the following options:
Protected weight-bearing involves taking weight off the affected joint by using supportive aids such as crutches. This treatment can help with pain relief, but will not cure the condition.
Currently, there is no medication that directly stops the progress of or cures avascular necrosis. However, some medications may be beneficial early in the condition. These include:
- Lipid-lowering medications - these break down the fatty (lipid) deposits in the blood vessels, which otherwise can reduce blood flow;
- Anticoagulants - these prevent formation of blood clots that can reduce blood flow to the bones;
- Hypertension medication - lowers blood pressure and improves blood circulation;
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs) - to reduce inflammation in the affected area, and;
- Bisphosphonates - used to treat osteoporosis with favorable outcomes observed in cases of avascular necrosis. 
Pulsed electrical stimulation has been used to encourage bone growth, and some evidence has suggested that it is effective in the treatment of early-stage avascular necrosis.
Hyperbaric oxygen treatment involves entering a pressurized chamber where the lungs can absorb up to three times more oxygen than normal. The treatment has been shown to provide significant improvements in pain, range of mobility and bone healing in some cases of early-stage avascular necrosis. 
Working with a physiotherapist to design and use strengthening exercises may be helpful with increasing flexibility and range of movement.
Surgery is not typically recommended, except in cases of bone damage or collapse. Surgical procedures include:
This procedure involves taking healthy bone from another part of the body and implanting it into the area affected by avascular necrosis. This can be done together with a core decompression procedure.
Bone core decompression
This procedure involves replacing a section of dead bone with a bone graft. Historically, bone core decompression was used as a diagnostic procedure to test bone marrow density, but as patients reported pain relief after the procedure, it became a therapy. It has been shown to regenerate bone growth and prevent the exterior of the bone from collapsing, eliminating the need for a joint replacement.
This less common procedure involves cutting away the dead bone from a weight-bearing area and reshaping the bone to allow healthy bone and cartilage to bear the weight instead.
If the avascular necrosis is in its later stages and the bone has collapsed, a complete joint replacement may be required. The surgeon will replace damaged bone with a prosthetic joint. Both the ball and socket of the hip may be replaced.
If left untreated, avascular necrosis can lead to bone collapse, arthritis and physical disability.
Avascular necrosis is a condition that requires medical treatment in its early stages, to try and reduce the chances of bone collapse or surgery. Though it cannot be cured, if detected early on, the symptoms can be managed and bone damage minimized.
In many cases, avascular necrosis cannot be prevented, but you can lower your risk by avoiding long-term use of corticosteroids, if you can, and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption.
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FAQ Frequently asked questions
What is avascular necrosis?
Avascular necrosis is the name given to bone death, a condition that occurs when the blood supply to an area of bone is cut off, either temporarily or permanently.
What are the symptoms of avascular necrosis?
The most common symptom of avascular necrosis is pain in the hips, inner knee and thighs, especially when being active. Limping and pain in the groin while walking are also commonly reported.
What causes avascular necrosis?
Bones are living tissues, which are fed by blood vessels. Bone that is avascular (without blood) for long cannot survive, becomes brittle and eventually collapses, causing severe arthritis and dysfunction in the affected joint.
Who gets avascular necrosis?
Most people with avascular necrosis are first diagnosed with the condition between the ages of 30-50. There is a rare form of this condition, Perthes' disease, which affects children aged between 3-11 and tends to target the head of the femur.
How is avascular necrosis diagnosed?
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect changes in the density and structure of bones. MRI is considered the best option for diagnosing avascular necrosis, as it can pick up on chemical changes in the bone marrow before any symptoms are felt.
How is avascular necrosis treated?
The treatment options depend on how early the condition is diagnosed - early intervention can avoid the need for surgery or joint replacement. Current treatment options include: exercise, hyperbaric oxygen therapy and electrical stimulation - to encourage …
Can avascular necrosis be cured?
There is no cure for avascular necrosis, but early diagnosis and intervention may help to avoid bone collapse and the need for bone grafts or joint replacement.
Can avascular necrosis be prevented?
Many cases of avascular necrosis cannot be prevented, as often the cause is unknown, but there are some recommendations to lower the risk: if at all possible, avoid high doses or long-term use of corticosteroids; avoid excessive alcohol consumption, …
Is avascular necrosis serious?
Yes. Left untreated, many cases of avascular necrosis will lead to bone degeneration, bone collapse and disability. Range of movement within the nearby joint can be greatly reduced and debilitating arthritis is a common outcome.