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Shoulder Osteonecrosis Treatment & Management

  • Author: Michael Levine, MD; Chief Editor: S Ashfaq Hasan, MD  more...
Updated: Nov 12, 2015

Medical Therapy

Removal of the offending agent, if possible, is the first line of treatment. Nonsurgical options often are more successful in cases of shoulder osteonecrosis because the shoulder is a non–weight-bearing joint. Physical therapy that include modalities for pain control and range of motion (ROM) exercises with subsequent strengthening is helpful in all stages, particularly in stage I and stage II.

Studies have shown that treatment with alendronate can possibly prevent a collapse of the femoral head caused by osteonecrosis; however, no research has been published regarding its effectiveness in treating osteonecrosis of the shoulder.


Surgical Therapy

Surgical options for shoulder osteonecrosis are as follows:

  • Core decompression: A central core of bone is removed or drilled from the humeral head into the necrotic zone. [8]
  • An alternative technique of decompression utilizing multiple passes of  a small-diameter (3-mm)  drill in a percutaneous fashion has been described. [9]
  • Arthroscopy: Arthroscopic debridement of chondral lesions is performed.
  • Hemiarthroplasty: Humeral head prosthetic replacement is performed (see image below). [10, 11, 12]
    Shoulder hemiarthroplasty in a patient with should Shoulder hemiarthroplasty in a patient with shoulder osteonecrosis.
  • Total shoulder arthroplasty: The humeral head is replaced with glenoid resurfacing. [10, 12]
  • Surface replacement arthroplasty [13, 14]

Preoperative Details

The decision for a given surgical procedure is based on preoperative staging. Core decompression, muscle pedicle grafting, and arthroscopy are indicated in cases prior to collapse of the humeral head. These procedures can be helpful in stage I, stage II, and stage III disease.

Once irregularity of the joint surface occurs, arthroplasty is most beneficial. In patients with atraumatic osteonecrosis of the humeral head, both hemiarthroplasty and total shoulder arthroplasty can be expected to provide lasting pain relief and improved range of motion, but hemiarthroplasty has had longer follow-up. Schoch and colleagues recommend that hemiarthroplasty be strongly considered in patients with atraumatic osteonecrosis of the humeral head and preserved glenoid cartilage.[15]


Intraoperative Details

 Intraoperative details vary according to the procedure chosen.

Core decompression is performed as follows:

  • Place the patient in the beach-chair position with the arm over the edge of the table
  • Use image intensification
  • Make a small incision in the lateral deltoid
  • Place a Kirschner wire (K-wire) into the necrotic lesion, and use a cannulated drill to take a core of bone.

If the drilling technique is utilized, the operative setup is identical, but instead of using a coring reamer, multiple passes are made into the lesion with a small-diameter drill (usually 3.2 mm) under image intensification.

Arthroscopy can be combined with decompression allowing for an intrarticular debridement. Articular cartilage flaps can be debrided back to a stable rim, loose bodies removed, and a selective capsular release can be performed as needed.

Hemiarthroplasty involves placement of a humeral head prosthesis, usually through a deltopectoral iapproach. For idiopathic osteonecrosis, the procedure is technically easier to perform than hemiarthroplasty for advanced arthritis, as the patient usually has minimal-to-no soft-tissue contracture and head deformity. By using the excised head as a sizer, near-perfect replacement of the articular surface can be achieved.

For total shoulder arthroplasty, multiple prostheses are available. The glenoid is resurfaced, usually with an all-polyethylene component. Total shoulder arthroplasty is indicated in individuals with stage IV disease.

In surface replacement arthroplasty, the humeral head only is resurfaced partially or completely with a metal component.


Postoperative Details

In patients who have undergone core decompression and muscle pedicle grafting, immediate ROM exercises can be initiated. Some limitations on ROM may be placed in cases of muscle pedicle grafting. Patients with core decompression are started on immediate passive ROM exercises, with active ROM as tolerated. Once full ROM is achieved, strengthening exercises can be initiated.

In patients who have undergone hemiarthroplasty and shoulder arthroplasty, immediate passive ROM is initiated, with limitation of external rotation to 45° for 6 weeks to allow for repair of the subscapularis from the surgical approach. Active ROM can be started as tolerated, with the same limitation in the absence of rotator cuff repair, which is rare. Strengthening usually is initiated at 6 weeks postsurgery.



Common surgical complications include infection and neurovascular injuries, which are particularly rare in these procedures.

When performing core decompression, care must be taken to avoid the axillary nerve anteriorly. Avoidance of penetration of the humeral head during core decompression is key.

Potential complications with arthroplasty include prosthetic loosening, dislocation, and intraoperative fracture. Fortunately, these problems are rare in avascular necrosis.


Outcome and Prognosis

The shoulder joint bears less weight than the joints of the lower extremity; therefore, symptoms can be mild, even in those with advanced disease. Many patients obtain good results when conservatively treated with analgesics and/or physical therapy for extended periods of time. Surgery can be reserved for those with severe pain, as patients with early-stage disease often do not progress radiographically.

Outcomes with surgical treatment are as follows:

  • Core decompression: Studies of core decompression have shown good and excellent results in up to 90% of cases of stage I and stage II disease. [16, 17] Core decompression also can be successful in stage III disease, with a 30% failure rate requiring subsequent arthroplasty. Failure occurs in all cases of stage IV or V disease; the procedure is palliative only. [8]
  • Muscle pedicle grafting: Limited experience with this procedure has shown no significant difference from core decompression alone, with increased morbidity. Further studies are required. [18]
  • Arthroscopy: Limited studies are available for review. Arthroscopy has no effect on the disease process, but it may be helpful in dealing with mechanical symptoms.
  • Arthroplasty: A 90% success rate has been reported in advanced-stage disease, with most patients regaining full ROM. [10, 12]

Future and Controversies

Disease prevention is key. Identifying those at risk and defining preventive measures is helpful. Fortunately, many cases can be treated successfully without surgical intervention. Prosthetic fixation in those with osteonecrosis of the shoulder often can be performed without cement because of good bone quality. Clinical identification of disease progression is critical to recognize and treat symptomatic disease in the early stages, thereby avoiding arthroplasty.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Michael Levine, MD Vice Chairman, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Forbes Regional Hospital; Associate Clinical Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Temple University School of Medicine

Michael Levine, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Pennsylvania Medical Society, Phi Beta Kappa, Orthopaedic Research Society, Pennsylvania Orthopaedic Society, American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Medical Association

Disclosure: Consultant and receive royalties from DJO surgical.


Amar Rajadhyaksha, MD Director, Miami Spine Institute, Miami Institute for Joint Reconstruction

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Pekka A Mooar, MD Professor, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Temple University School of Medicine

Pekka A Mooar, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

S Ashfaq Hasan, MD Associate Professor, Chief, Shoulder and Elbow Service, Department of Orthopaedics, University of Maryland School of Medicine

S Ashfaq Hasan, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Shoulder and Elbow Surgeons

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Mark D Lazarus, MD Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Medical College of Pennsylvania-Hahnemann University, Chief of Shoulder and Elbow Service, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Hahnemann University Hospital

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


The authors and editors of Medscape Reference gratefully acknowledge the contributions of previous author Michael Mont, MD,to the development and writing of this article.

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Shoulder osteonecrosis stage II disease.
Shoulder osteonecrosis stage IV disease.
Shoulder hemiarthroplasty in a patient with shoulder osteonecrosis.
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