A relatively common cause of knee pain occurs when a segment of bone loses its blood supply and begins to die. This condition is called osteonecrosis, which literally means “bone death.” More than 3 times as many women as men are affected; most are over the age of 60 years.
In the knee, the knobby portion of the thighbone on the inside of the knee (the medial femoral condyle) is most often affected. However, osteonecrosis of the knee may also occur on the outside of the knee (the lateral femoral condyle) or on the flat top of the lower leg bone (tibial plateau).
The exact cause of the osteonecrosis of the knee is not yet known. One theory is that a stress fracture, combined with a specific activity or trauma, results in an altered blood supply to the bone. Another theory supposes that a build-up of fluid within the bone puts pressure on blood vessels and diminishes circulation.
Osteonecrosis of the knee is also associated with certain conditions and treatments, such as obesity, sickle cell anemia, lupus, kidney transplants, and steroid therapy. Steroid-induced osteonecrosis frequently affects multiple joints and is usually seen in young patients.
Regardless of the cause, if the disease is not identified and treated early, it can develop into severe osteoarthritis.
In the early stages of the disease, treatment is not surgical. If the affected area is small, this treatment may be all that is needed.
- Medications to reduce the pain
- A brace to relieve pressure on the joint surface
- A conditioning program with exercises to strengthen your thigh muscles
- Activity modifications to reduce knee pain
- Surgical Treatment
If more than half of the bone surface is affected, you may need surgical treatment. Several different procedures may be used to treat osteonecrosis of the knee.
- Arthroscopic cleansing (debridement) of the join
- Drilling to reduce pressure on the bone surface
- Procedures to shift weightbearing away from the affected area
- Unicompartmental or total knee replacement
Your orthopaedic surgeon will discuss the options with you and make a recommendation based on your individual situation.