Pathogenesis and natural history of osteonecrosis

Semin Arthritis Rheum. 2002 Oct;32(2):94-124.


Background and objectives: Osteonecrosis (avascular necrosis) is a relatively common disorder seen by both rheumatologists and orthopedic surgeons. The vast majority of cases are secondary to trauma. However, for non-traumatic cases, there often remains a diagnostic challenge in defining the cause of bone death. The goal of this article is to review data extensively in the medical literature with respect to the pathogenesis of osteonecrosis, its natural history, and treatment.

Methods: A review of 524 studies on osteonecrosis was performed, of which 213 were selected and cited.

Results: Non-traumatic osteonecrosis has been associated with corticosteroid usage, alcoholism, infections, hyperbaric events, storage disorders, marrow infiltrating diseases, coagulation defects, and some autoimmune diseases. However, a large number of idiopathic cases of osteonecrosis have been described without an obvious etiologic factor. Although corticosteroids can produce osteonecrosis, careful history is always warranted to identify other risk factors. The pathogenesis of non-traumatic osteonecrosis appears to involve vascular compromise, bone and cell death, or defective bone repair as the primary event. Our understanding of the pathogenesis of osteonecrosis is now much better defined and skeletal scintigraphy and magnetic resonance imaging have enhanced diagnosis greatly. Early detection is important because the prognosis depends on the stage and location of the lesion, although the treatment of femoral head osteonecrosis remains primarily a surgical one.

Conclusions: Osteonecrosis has been associated with a wide range of conditions. Many theories have been proposed to decipher the mechanism behind the development of osteonecrosis but none have been proven. Because osteonecrosis may affect patients with a variety of risk factors, it is important that caregivers have a heightened index of suspicion. Early detection may affect prognosis because prognosis is dependent on the stage and location of the disease. In particular, the disease should be suspected in patients with a history of steroid usage, especially in conjunction with other illnesses that predispose the patient to osteonecrosis.

Relevance: A better understanding of the pathophysiology, diagnosis and treatment of osteonecrosis will help the physician determine which patients are at risk for osteonecrosis, facilitating early diagnosis and better treatment options.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / adverse effects
  • Adult
  • Age Distribution
  • Alcoholism / complications
  • Autoimmune Diseases / complications
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Infant
  • Israel / epidemiology
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic / complications
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Osteonecrosis / epidemiology*
  • Osteonecrosis / etiology*
  • Osteonecrosis / physiopathology
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications
  • Prognosis
  • Radionuclide Imaging / methods
  • Risk Factors
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Sex Distribution
  • Wounds and Injuries / complications


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones