OSTEOCHONDRITIS DISSECANS AND
Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) is a defect in the sub-chondral region of the apophysis or the epiphysis of a bone, often with partial or complete separation of the bone fragment. When this occurs in the distal femur, it is a common source of loose bodies in the knee. Whereas OCD most often affects the posterolateral aspect of medial femoral condyle, it can also occur in other regions of the knee, as well as the shoulder, elbow, and foot.
Although trauma is the most likely cause of OCD, a single event is
probably not responsible: this would cause a true fracture if the force is
large enough. Repetitive overloading is thought to affect the local blood
supply, making a region more susceptible to fragmentation and separation.
Trauma is believed to damage the delicate blood supply to the affected bone in
a process similar to Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease of the hip. Obese children are
more prone to this problem because of increased load on their joints. Normally,
the knee joints are subjected to forces up to six times body weight. Thus, an
additional 30 lb of body weight can add about 180 lb in forces to a joint. It
is no wonder that knee problems arise under such conditions. Fragments may
separate from the bone and become loose bodies in the joint. If the defect is
large, the joint may become incongruous, leading to mechanical signs and
symptoms. Whereas the bony lesion is often the center of attention because of
its visibility on radiographs, maintenance of a smooth overlying articular
surface in the weight- bearing region is the most important prognostic factor.
The onset of OCD is frequently insidious, with patients reporting vague
complaints, such as intermittent, poorly localized aching. Generally, the pain
intensifies with exercise but may persist even at rest. The knee may feel
stiff, and floating fragments of bone and cartilage can cause the knee to catch
or lock. If a sufficiently large fragment becomes loose in the joint and
trapped between the condyle and tibia, the patient may feel a sudden
pain and the knee may “give way.” These episodes may produce synovial
Physical Examination. On physical
examination, forcible compression of the affected side of the knee joint
elicits crepitation during knee flexion and extension. In addition, the
affected femoral condyle will be tender on palpation.
Imaging. Radiographs are necessary for diagnosis, and the notch
view (anteroposterior view with the knee flexed 90 degrees), tunnel view
(angled posteroanterior projection with the knee flexed at 40 degrees), or
lateral view will often best reveal the defect. Bone scans can help
differentiate acute processes from chronic ones. MRI is often used to define
the extent of the defect in both size and detachment from the articular surface,
thereby providing important information for potential surgical planning.
Treatment. The goal of treatment is to maintain or
reestablish a smooth articular surface and to remove loose fragments.
Conservative measures suffice in the early stages.
If the fragment has not separated from the femoral condyle, the lesion can be
considered stable and protected appropriately with activity and weight-bearing
modification. When defects involve the weight- bearing region of the femur,
walking with crutches to avoid placing full body weight on the affected limb is
essential while symptoms persist. Immobilization is rarely needed and should be
avoided whenever possible, because gentle knee motion is beneficial to the
jeopardized region of the articular cartilage.
A loose or detached fragment can be removed with arthroscopy. At the
same time, drilling through areas of poorly vascularized bone into regions of
good vascularity may induce a vascular healing response. When the fragment
represents a large part of the weight-bearing region or appears amenable to
reduction, internal fixation with Kirschner wires or screws should be
considered. The presence of multiple fragments lessens the chances of obtaining
a congruous surface. These fragments should be removed and the base of the
The prognosis for OCD of the knee depends on the age at which it occurs
and the extent of the involvement of the weight-bearing regions. In short, any
process such as this that causes an incongruity in the very delicate surface of
the knee joint predisposes to the development of osteoarthritis.
Defects that occur in children before the closure of the growth plate
frequently heal well with conservative treatment if the fragment has not
detached; in fact, many cases may go undetected. When radiographs are taken for
other reasons, these defects are not unusual findings. Prognosis is guarded if
the fragment detaches, especially when leaving a significant defect in the
weight-bearing region. Lesions that occur after closure of the growth plate are
less likely to heal.
Osteonecrosis is similar to OCD, but in the knee the diagnosis of
osteonecrosis indicates a large lesion that typically occurs in a female
patient older than age 60 years (the female-to-male ratio is 3:1) and
occasionally in a younger patient with predisposing factors, such
as long-term corticosteroid therapy or sickle cell anemia. These patients often
present with acute onset of pain secondary to a subchondral fracture and
collapse of the articular surface. The medial femoral condyle is most commonly
involved, but osteonecrosis also may occur in the lateral femoral condyle and
the tibial plateau (usually medial).
Imaging. Initial plain radiographs may be normal but eventually
show flattening of the articular surface, subchondral
radiolucency, and sclerosis of surrounding bone. MRI can be used to depict the
involved areas and may be used to detect changes not yet visible in plain
Treatment. Smaller lesions (<5 cm2) typically have a better clinical prognosis and may be satisfactorily treated with activity modification and use of assistive devices such as a cane. Progressive symptoms may necessitate drilling of the lesion, realignment osteotomy, or total knee replacement.