Subchondral acute inflammation in severe arthritis: A sterile osteomyelitis?

John X. O'Connell, Gunnlauger P. Nielsen, Andrew E. Rosenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Although arthritis is often associated with synovial inflammation, the osseous changes in inflammatory and degenerative arthritis are principally reactive, and typically lack an acute inflammatory component. We have recently encountered several osteoarticular specimens removed at the time of large joint arthroplasty that have shown a distinctive pattern of subchondral acute inflammation (SCAI) resembling acute bacterial osteomyelitis. These microscopic findings heretofore have not been recognized as a component of the histopathology of arthritis. To determine the frequency of SCAI, we examined slides (mean four per case) from 164 hip arthroplasties performed at one of our institutions in a single year. A total of 10 cases of SCAI, including the 4 original examples (2 humeral head specimens, 2 femoral head specimens) and 6 identified from the slide review are described in this report. Eight patients were female and two were male (ages 54-86 years, mean 70, median 70). All had severe degenerative joint disease, six had rheumatoid arthritis, and three had osteonecrosis. In none was there a clinical or intraoperative suspicion of infection. Cultures of joint fluid or bone were not performed. In all cases, the inflammation was subchondral (within 1.0 cm of the joint surface), and it was frequently associated with subchondral cysts. In osteonecrotic foci, the suppurative inflammation was diffuse within the marrow space, whereas in viable bone it was nodular and vaguely granulomatous. Special stains for organisms were negative. None of the patients was treated with long-term IV antibiotics. There has been no septic loosening of the prostheses at follow-up intervals ranging from 5 to 36 months (mean: 17 months). Our observations, to the best of our knowledge, are novel. Although we cannot definitively exclude bacterial infection as a cause of SCAI, the histologic and clinical features suggest that SCAI likely represents a noninfectious sterile form of inflammation. Subchondral acute inflammation is possibly secondary to synovial fluid insudation into subchondral cancellous bone in the setting of severe osteoarthritis and/or rheumatoid arthritis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)192-197
Number of pages6
JournalAmerican Journal of Surgical Pathology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Bacterial infection
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Osteomyelitis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


Dive into the research topics of 'Subchondral acute inflammation in severe arthritis: A sterile osteomyelitis?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this