Many nonneoplastic conditions of bone may clinically or radiologically mimic solitary bone tumors.
Unicameral bone cyst
Simple unicameral bone cysts occur in the long bones starting distal to the epiphyseal plate in children. The cyst causes the cortex to thin and predisposes the area to a buckle-like pathologic fracture, which is usually how the cyst is recognized. Plain x-rays are usually diagnostic. Simple unicameral bone cysts typically appear as well-marginated lesions without reactive sclerosis or an expansile cortex. Cysts < 5 cm may heal and may disappear as the fracture heals. Cysts > 5 cm, particularly in children, may require excision or curettage and bone grafting; however, many respond to injections of corticosteroids, demineralized bone matrix, or synthetic bone substitutes. The response may be variable and may require multiple injections. Regardless of treatment, cysts persist in about 10 to 15% of patients.
Fibrous dysplasia involves abnormal bone development during childhood. It may affect one or several bones. Cutaneous pigmentation and endocrine abnormalities may be present (Albright's syndrome). The abnormal bone lesions of fibrous dysplasia commonly stop developing at puberty. They rarely undergo malignant degeneration. On x-ray, the lesions can appear cystic and may be extensive and deforming. On imaging, the lesions have a classic ground-glass appearance. Calcitonin may help relieve pain. Progressive deformities, fractures that do not heal with immobilization, or intractable pain may be effectively treated surgically.
Aneurysmal bone cyst
An aneurysmal bone cyst is an idiopathic expansile lesion that usually develops before age 25 yr. This cystic lesion usually occurs in the metaphyseal region of the long bones, but almost any bone may be affected. It tends to grow slowly. A periosteal new bone shell forms around the expansile lesion and is often wider than the original bone. Pain and swelling are common. The lesion may be present for a few weeks to a year before diagnosis. The appearance on x-ray is often characteristic: The rarefied area is usually well circumscribed and eccentric; the periosteum bulges, extending into the soft tissues, and may be surrounded by new bone formation. MRI typically shows fluid-fluid levels. On imaging, some aneurysmal bone cyst–like lesions may appear more ominous, having characteristics similar to osteosarcoma, and thus should raise suspicion of telangiectatic osteosarcoma.
Surgical removal of the entire lesion is the most successful treatment; regression after incomplete removal sometimes occurs. Radiation should be avoided when possible because sarcomas occasionally develop. However, radiation may be the treatment of choice in completely surgically inaccessible vertebral lesions that are compressing the spinal cord.
Last full review/revision May 2012 by Michael J. Joyce, MD