Various tips can help someone living with osteochondritis dissecans. These include getting enough rest and avoiding weight-bearing or strenuous activities. Surgery and physical therapy may also help in some cases.

Osteochondritis dissecans is a condition that affects a joint. It occurs when a section of bone and cartilage in the joint begins to break free from the rest of the structure. In severe cases, the bone and cartilage completely detach, and the joint becomes unstable.

Osteochondritis dissecans may not cause any symptoms, but it may cause a dull ache or pain. Some people may experience mild to severe pain, joint instability, and loss of range of motion. In these cases, people may have to make adjustments to their activities. In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary.

With treatment, people often recover from osteochondritis dissecans, but some may need continuing support.

This article reviews how osteochondritis dissecans can affect quality of life, tips for living with the condition, when doctors recommend surgery, and more.

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Osteochondritis dissecans differs in severity and how it affects quality of life.

In some cases, a person may not have any symptoms. Some people will experience mild pain in the beginning.

As the condition worsens, individuals may develop more consistent and stronger pain. They may have pain and swelling, particularly when engaging in physical activities and sports.

A person may need to rest from sports for about 2–4 months, which could mean missing a season. After they have healed, individuals will likely be able to return to their sport or other regular activities.

Doctors often recommend resting to encourage healing. They may also recommend splinting, casting, or assistive devices such as walkers or crutches.

In advanced cases, the fragment of loose cartilage and bone comes off, creating a loose body in the joint. Doctors call this an unstable lesion. This causes severe symptoms that can include:

  • an unstable joint
  • swelling
  • more severe pain
  • locking of the joint

Someone with an unstable lesion often requires surgical intervention with longer recovery times. In the first 6 weeks following surgery, they will likely require crutches. They will also typically need about 2–4 months of physical therapy.

A person can help their joint with osteochondritis dissecans heal. Some tips for management include:

  • avoiding unnecessary movement that causes pain
  • resting from aggravating activities or sports
  • avoiding placing weight on the joint

A doctor may recommend physical therapy following surgery. A person may require 4–6 months of physical therapy to help restore strength and mobility to the joint.

A person can consider some exercise if it does not affect the joint.

For example, if osteochondritis dissecans occurs in the elbow, a person can walk, run, or do other activities that do not require the arm. However, they should avoid throwing a ball or doing any major movements with their arm.

Osteochondritis dissecans most commonly affects the knee. If this is the case, a person may need to avoid exercises or any activities that affect the knee. Still, a doctor may recommend crutches or stabilization devices to help with walking.

Doctors typically recommend rest and stopping activities such as sports for mild cases of osteochondritis dissecans.

In cases of unstable lesions or mild cases that do not resolve with nonsurgical treatments, a doctor may recommend surgical correction. Surgery involves a minimally invasive arthroscopic procedure.

Types of procedures a doctor may recommend include:

  • fixation, which uses pins or screws to stabilize the knee
  • replacement and grafting, which involves removing loose fragments and adding cartilage to the joint
  • drilling, which opens up the joint, allowing new blood vessels to grow and restoring blood flow to the joint

Learn more about treatment options for osteochondritis dissecans.

Recovery from osteochondritis dissecans takes time.

For mild cases, resting will often take 2–4 months.

Following surgery, a person will often require about 6 weeks of crutches and about 2–4 months of physical therapy. If a doctor advises that someone can return to a sport, they can often do so gradually around 4–5 months following the procedure.

The success rate of surgery ranges from about 30–100%. In a 2023 study, researchers found that about 72% of people healed completely after an average follow-up time of 11.3 years. The majority also had improved knee function and quality of life.

A person may be unable to return to their sport or other activities. It is best to discuss this with a doctor or physical therapist before restarting any type of exercise.

As the exact cause of osteochondritis dissecans is unclear, it may not be possible to prevent it.

Some experts believe a lack of blood flow is the most likely cause, while others point to microtrauma as the most likely cause.

Taking steps to reduce the risk of injury during sports or other physical activities may help reduce a person’s risk of osteochondritis dissecans.

Here are answers to common questions about osteochondritis dissecans.

What makes osteochondritis dissecans worse?

Osteochondritis dissecans may worsen with continued activity. A person should rest from any aggravating activity, such as sports, even if symptoms are mild or sporadic. Rest will help the joint heal.

Is osteochondritis dissecans a disability?

It is unlikely a person will qualify for disability for osteochondritis dissecans itself. However, many people develop early onset osteoarthritis. This could lead to disability if it greatly affects someone’s employment and quality of life.

What are the long-term effects of osteochondritis dissecans?

Osteochondritis dissecans can lead to early onset osteoarthritis. Some people may not fully recover from surgery, which can lead to lifelong issues with the affected joint. This may make continuing to play sports or engage in physical activities difficult or impossible.

Osteochondritis dissecans can take several months to heal, even in mild cases. This can lead to the inability to participate in sports or physical activities.

Severe cases may require surgery, which will require a longer recovery time. It may also lead to continued issues with the joint, which can include the early development of osteoarthritis.

A person’s doctor can advise on ways to encourage healing. This may include resting, avoiding weight-bearing activities, and physical therapy.