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Avascular necrosis (osteonecrosis): Stages, Treatment & More

Updated: Apr 8

Avascular necrosis (AVN), often referred to as osteonecrosis, is a debilitating medical condition that results from the insufficient blood supply to bone tissue. This lack of adequate blood flow leads to the death of bone cells, ultimately causing structural damage and functional impairment. AVN poses significant challenges, including intense pain, joint deformity, and limitations in mobility. 

Given the severity of its impact on individuals' daily lives, it is essential to delve into the intricacies of AVN, including its stages, available treatment modalities, and associated risk factors. This comprehensive understanding is pivotal for timely detection and intervention to mitigate its adverse effects and preserve joint function, thus improving overall quality of life for affected individuals.

Book an Appointment with Dr. Surendra Patil for all Avascular necrosis related concerns.

Understanding Avascular Necrosis

Understanding Avascular Necrosis

Avascular necrosis (AVN) is a condition wherein the blood supply to the bone is compromised, leading to the death of bone tissue. This process, also known as osteonecrosis, primarily affects the bone's ability to regenerate and maintain its structural integrity. AVN predominantly manifests in weight-bearing joints such as the hip, knee, shoulder, and ankle, although it can occur in other bones as well. 

Different parts it affects

1. Avascular Necrosis of the hip

The hip joint is one of the most commonly affected areas by AVN. This condition can lead to severe hip pain, limited range of motion, and difficulty walking. AVN of the hip often progresses through several stages, starting with the death of bone cells and culminating in joint collapse if left untreated.

2. Avascular Necrosis of the knee

AVN can also affect the knee joint, particularly following trauma or prolonged corticosteroid use. Symptoms of knee AVN include pain, swelling, and stiffness, which can significantly impact mobility and quality of life.

3. Avascular Necrosis of the shoulder

Although less common, AVN can occur in the shoulder joint, causing shoulder pain and restricted movement. AVN of the shoulder may result from trauma, excessive alcohol consumption, or certain medical conditions.

4. Avascular Necrosis of the ankle

AVN of the ankle joint can occur following traumatic injuries or as a complication of certain medical conditions. This condition can lead to ankle pain, swelling, and difficulty bearing weight on the affected foot.

Stages of Avascular Necrosis (AVN) 

Stages of Avascular Necrosis (AVN) 

The progression of avascular necrosis (AVN) through its stages is a critical aspect of understanding and managing this debilitating condition. AVN typically unfolds in a series of stages, each characterized by distinct changes in the affected bone tissue. Early recognition of these stages is essential for initiating timely interventions to prevent irreversible damage and preserve joint function. Let's delve into the stages of AVN in greater detail:

Stage 1: Disruption of blood flow

The initial stage of AVN is marked by the disruption of blood flow to the affected bone. Factors such as trauma, corticosteroid use, or underlying medical conditions may contribute to this vascular compromise. Without adequate blood supply, bone cells begin to undergo necrosis, or cell death, leading to the gradual deterioration of bone tissue.

Stage 2: Bone cell death (Necrosis)

As blood flow continues to be impaired, a significant portion of bone cells undergo necrosis.

This stage is characterized by the death of osteocytes, the cells responsible for maintaining bone structure and function. As bone tissue dies, the affected area becomes structurally weakened, increasing the risk of collapse and deformity.

Stage 3: Bone collapse

In this advanced stage, the structural integrity of the affected bone is compromised, leading to collapse or flattening of the bone. As the bone collapses, joint surfaces may become misaligned, resulting in pain, instability, and impaired mobility. Bone collapse is often irreversible and may necessitate surgical intervention to restore joint function and alleviate symptoms.

Stage 4: Joint degeneration

The final stage of AVN is characterized by progressive joint degeneration and dysfunction.

Continued lack of blood supply and structural instability contribute to the breakdown of joint cartilage and surrounding tissues. Severe pain, stiffness, and loss of function are common features of this stage, significantly impacting the individual's quality of life.


Symptoms and causes of avascular necrosis

The symptoms of avascular necrosis vary depending on the affected joint but often include,

  • Persistent pain, especially during weight-bearing activities.

  • Stiffness and limited range of motion in the affected joint.

  • Swelling and tenderness around the joint..

  • Difficulty walking or performing daily activities


Several factors can contribute to the development of avascular necrosis, including,

  • Trauma or injury to the affected joint, such as fractures or dislocations.

  • Prolonged use of corticosteroid medications.

  • Excessive alcohol consumption.

  • Certain medical conditions, such as sickle cell disease, lupus, or HIV/AIDS.

  • COVID inflammation decreases joint blood supply, elevating AVN risk.

  • Radiation therapy.

  • Blood clotting disorders.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing avascular necrosis typically involves a combination of imaging tests, such as X-rays, MRI scans, or bone scans, to assess the extent of bone damage and evaluate blood flow to the affected area. Once diagnosed, treatment options for AVN may include,

  • Medications to manage pain and inflammation, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or pain relievers.

  • Physical therapy to improve joint mobility and strengthen surrounding muscles.

  • Core decompression surgery to relieve pressure on the affected bone and stimulate new bone growth.

  • Joint replacement surgery in advanced cases where joint damage is severe.

Prevention Strategies for Avascular Necrosis

Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Adopting a healthy lifestyle is essential for reducing the risk of AVN. This includes eating a balanced diet rich in nutrients to support bone health, maintaining a healthy weight to reduce stress on the joints, and engaging in regular physical activity to promote blood circulation and joint flexibility.

Limit alcohol consumption: If you consume alcohol, do so in moderation. Limiting alcohol intake can help protect against AVN by preserving blood vessel function and reducing the risk of alcohol-related bone damage. Aim to follow recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption and seek support if you struggle with excessive drinking.

Manage underlying medical conditions: Individuals with underlying medical conditions such as autoimmune disorders or blood clotting disorders should work closely with their healthcare providers to manage these conditions effectively. This may involve taking medications as prescribed, attending regular medical appointments, and making lifestyle modifications to optimize overall health and well-being.

Avoid prolonged corticosteroid use: If you require corticosteroid medications for the treatment of inflammatory conditions, work closely with your healthcare provider to minimize the duration and dosage of these medications whenever possible. Consider alternative treatment options and discuss potential risks and benefits with your doctor.

Regular health check-ups: Schedule regular health check-ups with your healthcare provider to monitor your overall health and identify any potential risk factors for AVN. Be proactive in discussing your medical history, lifestyle habits, and any concerns you may have about bone health and joint function.

Impact of AVN on daily life

Mobility limitations: AVN can cause severe pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion in affected joints, making everyday activities such as walking, climbing stairs, or standing for prolonged periods challenging and painful.

Employment challenges: Individuals with AVN may face difficulties in the workplace due to physical limitations, pain, and decreased mobility. Job tasks that require physical exertion or prolonged periods of standing or sitting may be particularly challenging to perform.

Social isolation: Chronic pain and mobility limitations associated with AVN can impact an individual's ability to participate in social activities, leading to feelings of isolation and withdrawal from social interactions.

Coping strategies for living with AVN

Pain management techniques: Work with healthcare providers to develop a comprehensive pain management plan that may include medications, physical therapy, and complementary therapies such as acupuncture or meditation to alleviate pain and improve quality of life.

Adaptive equipment: Explore the use of adaptive equipment and assistive devices, such as canes, walkers, or orthopedic braces, to support mobility and independence in daily activities.

Lifestyle modifications: Make lifestyle modifications to accommodate physical limitations and reduce strain on affected joints. This may involve pacing activities, modifying work environments, and incorporating gentle exercise routines to maintain joint flexibility and muscle strength.

Seeking emotional support: Join support groups or online communities for individuals living with AVN to connect with others facing similar challenges, share experiences, and receive emotional support and encouragement.

Maintaining social connections: Stay connected with friends and family members by exploring alternative ways to engage in social activities, such as hosting gatherings at home, participating in virtual events, or enjoying hobbies that can be adapted to accommodate physical limitations.

Dispelling common misconceptions about Avascular Necrosis (AVN) and its treatment

Unfortunately, there are several misconceptions surrounding AVN and its treatment options that can hinder effective management and exacerbate patient anxiety. In this section, we aim to debunk these myths and provide accurate information to empower individuals living with AVN to make informed decisions.

Misconception 1: AVN only affects elderly individuals

Fact: While AVN is more commonly diagnosed in older adults due to age-related changes in bone health and blood circulation, it can occur in individuals of any age, including children and young adults. Factors such as trauma, corticosteroid use, excessive alcohol consumption, and certain medical conditions can increase the risk of AVN at any stage of life.

Misconception 2: AVN always requires surgery

Fact: While surgery may be necessary in advanced cases of AVN to restore joint function and alleviate pain, it is not always the first-line treatment option. Many individuals with AVN can effectively manage their symptoms with conservative measures such as pain medications, physical therapy, lifestyle modifications, and minimally invasive procedures like core decompression. The appropriate treatment approach depends on the severity of the condition and individual patient factors.

Misconception 3: AVN is always symptomatic

Fact: AVN can be asymptomatic in its early stages, meaning that individuals may not experience any noticeable symptoms despite underlying bone damage. As the condition progresses, symptoms such as pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion may develop. Therefore, regular medical check-ups and imaging studies are essential for early detection and intervention, even in the absence of symptoms.

Misconception 4: AVN is always progressive and irreversible

Fact: While AVN can progress if left untreated, early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can help slow or halt the progression of the condition and preserve joint function. With timely intervention, some individuals may experience regression of AVN-related changes and improved joint health. However, prompt diagnosis and proactive management are key to achieving favorable outcomes.

Misconception 5: AVN treatment is one-size-fits-all

Fact: The treatment of AVN is highly individualized and depends on various factors, including the location and extent of bone damage, the underlying cause of AVN, and the patient's overall health and lifestyle. Treatment plans may include a combination of conservative measures, such as medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle modifications, tailored to each patient's specific needs. In some cases, surgical interventions may be necessary to address advanced joint damage and restore function.


Avascular necrosis is a serious condition that can have significant consequences if left untreated. By understanding the stages, symptoms, and treatment options for AVN, individuals can take proactive steps to preserve joint function and enhance their quality of life.

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms suggestive of avascular necrosis, it's essential to seek prompt medical attention for proper diagnosis and treatment. Contact Polaris Healthcare for comprehensive evaluation and personalized treatment options tailored to your needs.

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 About The Author: Dr. Surendra Patil (M.B.B.S DNB / D.Ortho)

Dr. Surendra Patil, MBBS, Diploma in Orthopaedics, DNB - Orthopedics Surgery, is a dynamic surgeon with skilled hands well versed in various surgical procedures in orthopedics and exceptionally well-read in his chosen expertise. He is proficient in Arthroscopic Surgeries, Adult Joint Reconstruction Surgery, Accidents & Emergencies, Joint Replacement, Healthcare Management, and Healthcare in general. He is an experienced Medical Professional with a demonstrated history of working in the hospital & healthcare industry. Follow: LinkedIn 


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