Osteochondrosis causes pieces of cartilage and thin layers of bone to separate from some of the bones within a person’s joints. It can affect adults and children, with symptoms such as joint pain, stiffness, and mobility changes.

Surgery and other treatments can be quite effective. Osteochondrosis can also resolve without treatment.

This article provides an in-depth look at osteochondrosis. It details its types and symptoms before discussing the causes and risk factors of the condition.

It also provides information about the diagnosis, treatment, and outlook of osteochondrosis.

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There is some scientific debate about how to understand the types of osteochondrosis.

For instance, an older study from 2007 notes that some scientists and doctors use the term “osteochondritis dissecans” and “osteochondrosis” interchangeably.

The study authors recommend the term osteochondrosis, as osteochondritis suggests that inflammation must be present. However, this is not always the case.

By contrast, a 2021 study argues that osteochondritis and osteochondrosis are different kinds of issues with the bones and cartilage. The study authors argue that osteochondritis causes irregular joint and bone defects, while these are smooth in osteochondrosis.

Furthermore, the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) divides the condition into two main types — adult and juvenile. The adult type begins in adulthood, whereas the juvenile type develops earlier.

This article will refer to the condition as osteochondrosis.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), osteochondrosis comes with a range of possible symptoms. Common symptoms of this condition include:

  • reduced mobility in at least one joint
  • joint stiffness
  • joint pain
  • abnormalities in the knee joint, or surrounding tissues, including:
    • swelling
    • tenderness
    • popping sounds during movement
    • weakness

Some prevalent symptoms of osteochondrosis include:

  • limited ability to fold to straighten the arm
  • limited ability to rotate the legs outward
  • structural changes within the joints

Osteochondrosis may also cause some less common symptoms. These are:

  • thinning of muscle mass of the quadriceps muscles
  • difficulty walking
  • abnormalities of the tibia, or shin bones

An MRI or CT scan may identify how much cartilage or bone has separated from the tibia.

For the time being, scientists are unsure about how exactly this condition arises. However, there are several theories, which include:

  • joint inflammation
  • inadequate blood flow to the joints, which could cause bones and cartilage to separate, eventually harming the bone
  • defective bone formation, which could cause weaknesses within the bone
  • repetitive trauma from overuse or repetitive joint movements

Some scientists also speculate that there may be a genetic component to osteochondrosis. However, the current evidence regarding family history suggests that genetics may only play a small role.

Risk factors

A risk factor for osteochondrosis is something that makes it more likely that someone has this condition relative to the general population. These risk factors do not necessarily cause osteochondrosis, although that may sometimes be the case.

According to NORD, osteochondrosis risk factors include:

  • Sex: Osteochondrosis is 2–3 times more common in males.
  • Age: The condition mostly affects people between 10 and 15 years. They are very rare in people under 10 and over 50 years.

The first step in diagnosing osteochondrosis is a physical exam. Doctors will ask about any joint pain before observing possible issues with joint mobility.

However, simply noting the symptoms is not enough to make a diagnosis. This is because several diseases can cause these symptoms.

For this reason, doctors must often rely on imaging techniques to diagnose osteochondrosis. These imaging techniques include X-rays and MRI scans.

Sometimes, doctors will also need to use arthroscopy for diagnostic purposes. An arthroscopy uses keyhole surgery so that doctors can insert a tiny camera into their person’s joints. This camera has a light on it, allowing doctors to capture pictures from inside the joints.

According to NORD, a combination of arthroscopy and MRI offers the most reliable way to diagnose osteochondrosis.

According to a 2022 review, doctors have several means of treating osteochondrosis. The specific treatment technique will depend upon the severity of an individual’s condition.

Some treatment options include:

  • temporarily reducing motion in an affected joint by using a brace
  • temporarily using weight-bearing aids, such as crutches or frames
  • drilling into an affected joint to promote bone and cartilage healing

Doctors may also use surgery to repair damaged bone or cartilage using metallic screws, cartilage transplants, or special bio-absorbable implants.

The outlook for people with osteochondrosis depends upon many factors.

Although osteochondrosis can resolve on its own, this is not always the case. Therefore, a person’s outlook could depend on whether they receive treatment. Without treatment, osteochondrosis can lead to chronic pain and premature arthritis.

Some forms of treatment offer a positive outlook. For instance, drilling techniques have symptom improvement rates between 92% and 100%. This figure is between 30% and 100% for those who undergo surgery.

Any individual with symptoms of osteochondrosis should contact a doctor. This is especially true if the individual belongs to a group that has an elevated risk of developing this condition.

Although osteochondrosis is not life threatening, its complications include chronic pain and arthritis. By seeing a doctor early, an individual with osteochondrosis may be able to mitigate these possible complications.

Osteochondrosis causes cartilage and layers of bone to separate from bones within a person’s joints.

There are two main types of osteochondrosis: the adult and juvenile form. The majority of osteochondrosis cases arise between the ages of 10 and 15 years. The condition is also more common in males.

Osteochondrosis can cause a range of joint issues. These include joint pain, joint stiffness, and limited range of motion. Without treatment, the complications of osteochondrosis include chronic pain and arthritis.

The gold standard for diagnosing osteochondrosis is an MRI plus an arthroscopy. Treatment may involve bracing, weight-bearing aids, or drilling. In more severe cases, surgery might be necessary.