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Emily Niu

Osteochondritis dissecans: Deciding the best candidates for nonoperative treatment

Emily Niu

“When patients come to see me with this condition, they’re often at their lowest point. But then I get to watch them go through this transformation as they’re getting better,” says Emily Niu, M.D. “It’s really wonderful to see someone’s personality blossom over the course of treatments.”

The adage of “practice makes perfect” is true for young competitive athletes; however it also puts them at risk for overuse injuries. One of these injuries is a condition called osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), in which repeatedly overloading joints causes increased stress to certain areas of bone. This area of bone can lose its blood supply, become unhealthy and ultimately end up fragmented. In the late stages, this area of bone can break off from the surrounding healthy bone and as a result, the overlying cartilage (which relies on the bone for a foundation) can become prone to damage. This process can be likened to the formation of potholes in a road. Typically, individuals affected can have pain, limited range of motion or even arthritis down the line.

This condition can happen at different locations throughout the body, including the knees, ankles and elbows. Baseball players and gymnasts are particularly prone to getting OCD of the capitellum, or the outside of the elbow, from throwing or tumbling.

If this injury is unstable, with bone and cartilage already fragmenting, it’s typically treated with surgery, explains Emily Niu, M.D., a Children’s National orthopaedic surgeon. Stabilizing the fragment and drilling tunnels in the affected bone surface allows new bone to grow and repair the defect. But for stable OCD, the treatment path is unclear.

Sometimes nonoperative treatments, such as rest, physical therapy or bracing the joint, can allow it to fully heal over time; however, she says, some patients treated nonoperatively may not be able to heal and will still require surgery later.

What distinguishes these two groups has thus far been unclear. Dr. Niu adds that there are few studies that have looked at what characteristics might make patients better candidates for a surgical or nonoperative route. The studies that do exist are limited to very small groups of patients.

To help doctors and their patients make more informed decisions, Dr. Niu and her colleagues performed a retrospective review of 89 patients aged 18 years old and younger treated at Boston Children’s Hospital for stable OCD of the capitellum. The vast majority of these 49 male and 40 female patients were baseball players and gymnasts. Most had just a single elbow affected; four patients (all gymnasts) experienced this problem in both elbows.

Each of these patients was initially treated nonoperatively, with activity restriction, physical therapy and progressive return to activity at the discretion of the treating physician. During this time, all of the athletes had elbow radiographs, elbow MRIs or both to image the injury and follow its healing process.

The researchers report in the November 2018 that just over half of these 93 elbows healed successfully with nonoperative treatments, taking an average of about eight months for symptoms to subside and imaging to show that the bone had healed properly.

When Dr. Niu and her colleagues looked for characteristics that might have influenced whether nonoperative treatments worked or didn’t, they didn’t find any difference in the two groups with age, bone maturity, sex, hand dominance or sport. However, the healing group had symptoms for an average of four months shorter than the non-healing group before they sought treatment. Those patients with bone lesions without clear margins visible on MRI were more likely to heal than those with clear margins, as were those without cyst-like lesions on their bones – both signs of a more advanced process. In addition, those whose bone lesions were relatively small were more likely to heal than those with larger lesions compared to the size of their bones.

Dr. Niu notes that OCD can be a devastating injury for young athletes, interrupting their participation in sports on average for a minimum of six months and significantly longer if nonoperative treatments fail and surgery becomes necessary. Being able to shave some time off that schedule with better knowledge of which type of treatment is most likely to work, she says, can help her patients get back to doing what they love significantly faster.

“When patients come to see me with this condition, they’re often at their lowest point. But then I get to watch them go through this transformation as they’re getting better,” Dr. Niu says. “It’s really wonderful to see someone’s personality blossom over the course of treatments. It’s such a relief for both of us when they’re back where they want to be.”

Benjamin Martin and Anjna Melwani

Children’s National orthopaedic surgery experts prepare for the 2018 POSNA annual meeting

The Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America (POSNA) will hold its 2018 annual meeting May 9-12, 2018 in Austin, TX. POSNA is dedicated to improving the care of children with musculoskeletal disorders through education, research and advocacy. Along with 1,400 othopeadic surgeons, physicians and other health care professionals, experts from Children’s National will attend and participate in the following activities:

  • Matthew Oetgen, M.D., M.B.A., Division Chief of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine, along with hospitalists Rita Fleming, M.D., and Anjna Melwani, M.D., will give a presentation on quality, safety and value titled, “Hospitalist co-management of pediatric orthopedic patients improves outcomes and quality processes.”
  • Danielle Putur, M.D., Miguel Pelton, M.D., Niharika Patel, M.P.H., and Emily Niu, M.D., will present a poster titled, “ACL growth with age in the skeletally immature: an MRI study.”
  • Benjamin Martin, M.D., will present a poster titled, “The effectiveness of intrathecal morphine compared to oral methadone for postoperative pain control after posterior spinal fusion for adolescent idiopathic scoliosis.”
Benjamin Martin, M.D., and Anjna Melwani, M.D., are among the experts from Children’s National who will be presenting at the POSNA annual meeting.

Benjamin Martin, M.D., and Anjna Melwani, M.D., are among the experts from Children’s National who will be presenting at the POSNA annual meeting.

As a newly elected POSNA board member, Dr. Oetgen will also preside over the clinical award session, as well as chair the Spine Subspecialty Day, which is designed to update surgeons on current, cutting-edge topics and provide tips and tricks on a range of issues related to adolescent idiopathic scoliosis and moderate a discussion at this year’s meeting.

Additionally, Benjamin Martin, M.D., recently won the 2017 POSNA Clinical Trials Planning Grant – “The Treatment of Pediatric Diaphyseal Femur Fractures: A Clinical Trials Planning Grant.”

Visit the POSNA website to find out more information on this year’s conference.

The 38th Annual Telly Awards recognizes a Children’s National documentary

Shireen Atabaki

“I was very excited that our documentary was able to receive such an honor. We were able to successfully train 100% of D.C. Public School nurses, which makes all the difference when recognizing concussions in students and athletes,” says Shireen Atabaki, M.D., M.P.H.

The “Play Smart, Your Brain Matters” documentary was recently recognized at the 38th Annual Telly Awards, which honors excellence in video and television across all screens. In light of the Athletic Concussion Protection Act of 2011, the documentary was created as a training tool for the Concussion Care and Evaluation Training Program, funded by the D.C. Department of Health and hosted by Children’s National Health System and MedStar Sports Medicine.

According to the Athletic Concussion Protection Act of 2011, athletic, school and medical personnel are required to receive the proper preparation and training in concussion recognition and response. All athletes suspected of sustaining a concussion are to be removed from practice or play and only allowed to return to sport participation after a written clearance is given by a licensed healthcare provider who is experienced in the evaluation and management of concussions.

Emergency Medicine Specialist, Shireen  Atabaki, M.D., M.P.H., and expert in concussion and knowledge translations says, “I was very excited that our documentary was able to receive such an honor. We were able to successfully train 100% of D.C. Public School nurses, which makes all the difference when recognizing concussions in students and athletes.